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What can we learn from the Mallee Emu-wren's story?

October 27, 2017

 

Despite years of warnings from local researchers, the Southern Emu-wren likely went extinct in South Australia in 2014 after a fire swept through their last remaining habitat. Though populations of these wrens still exist in Victoria, this event (and similar events that continue to occur for many other species around Australia) represents a huge loss for this species.

 

Outside of the research world we often don’t hear about local or regional extinctions of populations because unless a species goes extinct completely, it’s not newsworthy. But we should care. Here’s why:

 

Why we should care:

Species often exist in distinct populations that have varying levels of interaction with each other. But genetic diversity between these populations mean that when individuals from these groups interbreed, they share, maintain and gain new traits that allow each population to be adaptable to changes in their own environment. 

 

Imagine one population has survived a disease because only a few individuals in that group had natural resistance. If they now breed and share these resistant genes with the other population, these individuals will now be much more likely to survive when they come in contact with the disease.

 

However, if interactions between these populations are somehow shut down – (land clearance between their habitats for example) or one population is eliminated (clearing habitat for agriculture/mining is a common cause) then this reduces the likelihood of survival into the future. 

 

Unfortunately this is what has happened with the Southern Emu-wren. Historical widespread populations through South Australia and Victoria had been whittled down to only three, one in SA and two in Victoria, when fires swept through the SA population in 2014. Past broad scale clearing of their habitat caused the initial reduction in their populations, which has been compounded by large wildfires. Researchers had been warning State and Federal governments that such an event was likely for years, but with decreasing funding, the capacity for environment departments to act has been crippled. 

 

The species is now considered Endangered and likely survives in only a few small populations (less than 500 individuals) in Victoria. Another fire event like the one in 2014 could potentially send the species into extinction. As such, it is one of 20 birds, 20 mammals and 30 plants given prioritised Federal funding for their active recovery by 2020. 

 

South Australia has the worst record for bird extinction in the country, despite our state’s ‘no species lost’ policy. A large cause of this is historical land clearance causing an ongoing ‘extinction debt’, which will eventually leave at least 50 of the Mt Lofty Ranges original 120 bird species extinct unless habitat is replaced. Declining funding for environment departments country-wide mean that as a community we need to take this sort of action into our own own hands.

 

How to have a lasting positive effect:

The easiest and most effective way to do this is to individually offset our own ecological footprints with an organisation like BioR (http://bior.org.au/) for as little as $1 per day. BioR uses the concept of individuals offsetting their own ecological footprints to replace habitat for declining species.

 

If everyone in the world lived like us in our highly-developed Australia we would need around 5 earths. Even the most environmentally-conscious of us would need a few earths to sustain our lifestyles, so the only way to be truly responsible is to sponsor this kind of action. If you consider yourself environmentally conscious, I highly encourage you to take a truly responsible action and offset your ecological footprint with an organisation like BioR in order to bring back species like the Mallee Emu-wren from the brink of extinction.

 

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