Endangered Australian animals are growing. “Dead as a Dingo”; not an exact term that many people are familiar with, but perhaps something that, if the plight of endangered animals in Australia continues, may become a truth in future. Captain Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay in 1770 signalled the start of mass migration from Europe to the southern hemisphere. But not just by humans. The European arrivals introduced a large number of new flora and fauna to the Australian continent. Perhaps not purposefully, but this was a catalyst that endangered many native Australian animals and even drove some to extinction.
Tasmania, with its unique and fragile ecosystem, was particularly badly impacted. If you were an animal known by the prefix ‘Tasmanian’, you will have been in some trouble! Among the now extinct Tasmanian natives are:
The Tasman starling was driven to extinction through competition from introduced European starlings, as well as through predation from newly introduced European black rats.
The Tasmanian Emu was a favourite of human hunters. That coupled with its natural habitat being reduced by additional human started bush fires spelled the end of the large bird.
And likely the most widely known of now extinct Australian animals, The Tasmanian Tiger was sadly hunted to extinction in the wild, and the last known Tasmanian Tiger died in captivity in 1936.
On the mainland, we lost the Desert Bandicoot, eradicated by predation from introduced cat and fox species, as well as more human introduced bush fires.
And while not yet extinct, over 300 species of Australian animals are now considered vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered. These include internationally recognised Australian species such as the Tasmanian Devil (an estimated 20,000 – 50,000 remain), the Cassowary (an estimated 1,500 left in the wild), and the cute little Quokka (only 4,000 left on the Australian mainland, and 7,000 on Rottnest Island). The intrinsically Australian Wallaby and Koala are also vulnerable due to bushfires, and their natural habitats being infringed on by humans. Wild Dingos are slowly disappearing, mainly because of breeding with domestic dogs. So, the Dingo may well replace the Dodo in popular vernacular within our lifetime.
Land animals have had their perils, but their cousins in our surrounding seas have also been dealt a major blow by human hands.
A frequent traveller past our shores, the Humpback Whale, was hunted to near extinction by whalers. In the late 1950s there were as few as 440 Humpback Whales left. Protections were eventually put in place in the 1960s, and while at first, they did not seem to be able to turn the tide of their path to extinction, the population did eventually manage to turn around. Good news reported this year is that, with a current population of around 25,000, they are finally back to their pre-whaling levels of the 1700s.
Also dwelling our oceans, the blobfish (google them…they look exactly as their name describes!), is one of the less aesthetically blessed of Earth’s creatures. However, they are also endangered due to human interference. Global warming caused rising water temperatures and accidentally getting caught in trawler nets are depleting the population of this uniquely ugly, but captivating creature.
You cannot talk about environmental impact on Australian ecosystems without mentioning the world’s largest living organism: The Great Barrier Reef. It is in critical danger. In the last three decades, the Reef has lost around half of its coral cover. Global warming has caused damaging bleaching to the coral that is left over, critically endangering the multitude of organisms that call the reef home. This includes the likes of Turtles and Crocodiles who have managed to survive and thrive for millennia with little change prior to human interference.
So, what are the main reasons much of our wildlife has been critically endangered?
Loss of Habitat
Habitat loss is one of the most significant causes of endangering animals. Historically, and occasionally still now, this is caused by forces of nature such as weather patterns or geological shifts. However, the biggest single cause of habitat loss in recent history is human activity. Farming and urbanisation of animal habitats has impacted on multiple species like no natural occurrence has ever been able to.
When natural and human related activities combine, the impact can be even more disastrous. The devastating bushfires of 2019/20 have left an estimated 1 billion animals dead, and have pushed at least 20 endangered species closer to extinction. Those animals that did survive the actual fires must now deal with a much changed and eroded habitat.
As mentioned in the introduction, invasive species have had a detrimental impact on indigenous Australian wildlife. Newly introduced predators and competitive species alike have irreversibly altered our unique ecosystem. Many Australians will be familiar with the story of the Cane Toad. Originally native to Hawaii, they were introduced to Australia by farmers to control pests, such as beetles, from impacting on sugar cane crops. The toads did indeed control the beetles but were a little too successful. The Cane Toad population has multiplied to epidemic proportions, becoming a major pest themselves. There are now an estimated 200 million Cane Toads in Australia!
Overexploitation of Resources
Overfishing is a widely recognised cause of endangering marine life. Globally, around 63% of all known fish stocks are overfished. The Australian Fisheries reports that 13 local species of fish are classified as overfished or subject to overfishing.
However, it isn’t just the marine life that is fished for consumption that is endangered by this process. Thousands of Sharks, Turtles, Dolphins, and even Whales get caught and drown in massive industrial sized fished nets every year.
The arrival of domesticated animals from Europe and the Americas brought new diseases into the Australian continent. Our native populations of animals, with no historical exposure to these diseases, will have had little resistance to the invading pathogens. Feral pigs, foxes, rats, dogs, and cats all brought new diseases over with them. Introduced wild dog species, for example, have been found to carry tapeworm parasites, which in turn have been transmitted to indigenous Kangaroo and Wallaby species.
Human induced pollution has endangered many animals ever since the industrial revolution. Pesticides and other chemicals introduced to the Australian ecosystem, even if directly unintentional, have significantly harmed many species. Chemicals used by farmers to control insects were found to have likely caused the deaths of many native Australian birds such as Cockatoos and Galahs.
The pandemic plastic pollution of our oceans has severely impacted marine life. Nearly 1,000 turtles were found dead and washed up on beaches around Australia. Globally it is estimated that approximately 52% of all sea turtles have eaten plastic.
After decades of hunting, fishing, polluting, and blindly introducing new species, Australians did eventually wake up to the damage we were doing to their ‘lucky country’.
The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was set up for conservation purposes in 1975. Initiatives to responsibly manage fishing and tourism were introduced to protect marine life as well as preserve local economies and jobs. In 1981 the Reef became a World Heritage Site gaining global as well as local support to help preserve it, specifically aiming to combat the impacts of global warming, over-tourism, and illegal fishing.
In 2009, the Australian Fishing Industry announced that it would forgo millions of dollars to help save the southern bluefin tuna. It was a positive step, taking a short-term hit in order to secure the long-term future of both the species and the industry.
Koala’s, with their wide appeal and instantly recognisable link to Australia, are often used as the face of endangered animal appeals. Many conservation groups work on protection and education measures to help the survival of the marsupial. These include events such as “Save the Koala Day” aimed at raising funds and awareness to support Koala hospitals and planting eucalyptus trees to replace those that were deforested.
Global Giving helps to fund conservation volunteers who are trying to protect the endangered Tasmanian Devil through building safe enclosures and monitoring the wild population to ensure the survival of the species. They are also working on solutions to prevent a contagious cancer that manifests as facial tumours on them, a disease that threatens to wipe out wild Devils if not addressed.
Efforts to protect the Australian wildlife and ecosystem have noticeably increased through government, NGO, and individual alike in recent decades, hopefully decelerating the damage that has already been done. Perhaps for some species it will mean the difference between survival and extinction. For the Tasmanian Tiger, unfortunately, it’s too little too late.