Saturday, December 18, 2010

SUSTAINABLE USE - Letter to the Editor, Courier Mail

April 3, 2009
Australia's already gravely endangered wildlife faces a new and lethal threat, one that is spreading rapidly - the lie of "sustainable use".

That phrase, increasingly put about by greedy commercial operators hellbent on exploiting what's left of our native fauna, is a cruel hoax given that our unique wildlife is literally disappearing before our eyes.

"Sustainable use" sounds reasonable enough, but given the reality on the ground for wildlife around the country, it is empty and meaningless spin designed to con the public into accepting what should be unacceptable.

The most recent example is the proposal from crocodile farmers to harvest crocodile eggs from wild salt water crocodile populations in Far North Queensland.

Not only does the proposal disgust me as an animal lover and conservationist but also, as a researcher who has worked closely with these apex predators for over 30 years, it gives me real concern that it would drive crocodiles to extinction.

At first glance the idea might seem sensible, but only if you accept the widespread misconception that crocodile numbers are on the increase and on the march, posing an ever greater threat to people living in coastal areas of northern Australia.

But it is humans who are encroaching into croc country in increasing numbers, which makes it inevitable that there will be more, and sometimes tragic encounters between these magnificent reptiles and people.

Understandably given the public fear and fascination with crocodiles, even a sighting of one of them near a residential area gets front page media coverage, which is inevitably followed by the call that "something must be done about this growing menace".

Back in the real world, crocodile habitat is being reduced and their numbers are falling, with detrimental flow-on affects down the food chain.

Another claim put forward by the crocodile industry is it's alright to steal a few eggs because female salt-water crocodiles produce up to 2500 eggs over their lifetime.  It's another claim that sounds fine until you subject it to scientific scrutiny. Of these 2500 eggs produced over approximately 40 years, only 1% survive to breeding age.  This means that over 40 years, a breeding female salt water crocodile will only produce 25 adult crocodiles.  And bear in mind, salties are already classified by the Queensland Government’s own Environmental Protection Agency as a vulnerable species.

Then would come the problem of policing such a scheme to make sure that so-called "sustainable use" did not become no-holds barred plunder, and unfortunately the Environmental Protection Agency does not have the funding and staff to do the job.
If it were ever introduced, the future of these magnificent creatures who have survived for millennia would left in the hands of an industry for whom they are nothing more than a way to make money.

Another species threatened by the deadly combination of "sustainable use" and widespread ignorance is the kangaroo. Yes, that's right, the kangaroo.
Most people think they are present in huge numbers "out west"; that they wipe out crops, and are a menace to anyone who has to drive through the area at night, especially if you don't have a "bull bar".

Even people sympathetic to the cause of wildlife protection can be convinced that allowing commercial shooters to kill a few roos for their skins and meat is a good move.

Think again. The traditional kangaroo mob has all but disappeared in Australia. Understandably, shooters target the biggest, healthiest roos they come across. Unfortunately, these are also the most prolific breeders and the leaders of the mob.

When they are taken out, the results are devastating for the kangaroo population.  Already the eastern grey and the red kangaroo are threatened species.

Australia’s record of extinct, endangered and threatened species is amongst the worst in the world. 

Let us never be dismissive of compassion and altruism when it is directed at helping animals.
Species and landscapes are important, but species are made up of living, breathing, feeling individuals, just like us, so let us conserve and care for them, as well as their landscapes.
And 'sustainability' is a fine word and a good concept, but not if it is attached to an exploitative industry.

It is now time for urgent action, focused research and a sustained public effort from all Australians to save our unique wildlife before it is too late.

--Bob Irwin

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