REPORTER: STEPHANIE MARCH: These tiny creatures in northern Tasmania are about to make the biggest trip of their lives . The Eastern Quoll is endangered… but a mission to save it is underway.
ANDROO KELLY, TROWUNNA WILDLIFE PARK, TASMANIA: Wildlife is our heritage. Our wildlife is who we are. We in Australia are very proud of our wildlife, but we don’t protect them properly.
REPORTER STEPHANIE MARCH: There are more than 500 animals – like the Eastern Quoll – on Australia’s threatened species list and it’s growing. Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world .
AMES TREZISE, AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION: Our system for protecting threatened species in this country is fundamentally broken. And we don’t have the laws in place that protect their critical habitats and we’re certainly not investing anywhere near enough money in their recovery
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER, ECOLOGIST, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: We have a custodial role to look after that biodiversity, and we’ve utterly dropped the ball.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Can you guarantee that no more species will go extinct while you’re in this role?
SUSSAN LEY, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER : Of course, I can’t, but all I can say is that I don’t want to see any more species go extinct while I’m in this role.
STEPHANIE MARCH: These eastern Quolls are being taken to mainland Australia… where they became extinct more than 50 years ago. They’ll be released into a national park in New South Wales. But there are no guarantees of success . It’s been tried once before and only six out of twenty survived their first year on the mainland. Australia’s track record is appalling when comes to saving our unique wildlife. For some animals there is hope but hundreds of species are at risk of being wiped out. Tonight on Four Corners we investigate how Australia found itself in the midst of an extinction crisis. Ecologist Bronwyn Fancourt is headed to Bruny Island …. off the coast of Tasmania. It’s the last stronghold of the eastern quoll.
DR BRONWYN FANCOURT, ECOLOGIST, UNIVERSITY OF NEW ENGLAND: Bruny Island’s quoll central basically. At the end of the day this is our biggest Eastern Quoll population and if something happens to the population on Bruny, the species as a whole is in dire straits. So, I keep coming down on a regular basis just to monitor that population.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Eastern quolls are nocturnal. To monitor them, Dr Fancourt spends hours in the dark searching.
BRONWYN FANCOURT: There is one, there is another one. There he goes! Do do do ! There’s a quoll.
STEPHANIE MARCH: These carnivorous little creatures only live for about three years. Here on Bruny Island the count is going well. But on Tasmania’s main island their numbers have halved since the early 2000s.
DR BRONWYN FANCOURT: What it turns out was there was a period of unsuitable weather. For quolls, quolls like it cold and they like it dry, but there was a sustained period of warm wet weather, which didn’t agree with them and their numbers dropped around that time. While the weather since improved, the quolls just haven’t been able to recover their numbers since. Unfortunately, few get hit by cars, I’m sure cats take out a few young ones. There’s a few bits and pieces that they can cope with as a large population, but now their numbers are just so small they can’t outpace all those existing things that were there before.
REPORTER STEPHANIE MARCH: Doctor Fancourt’s work documenting the Eastern Quolls brought their decline to the attention of the world.
DR BRONWYN FANCOURT: They are listed federally and they are listed internationally as endangered on both of those listings. They’ve gone from not being listed to endangered.
STEPHANIE MARCH: How worrying is that?
Dr BRONWYN FANCOURT: It’s very worrying because it can happen so quickly. That just shows you how quickly it can happen and I guess we saw that on the mainland. The numbers were always high and overabundant and they’ve gone from overabundant to extinct in a matter of years.
REPROTER STEPHANIE MARCH: To try to help the Eastern Quoll, 1.5 million dollars has been promised by the federal government. But many threatened species don’t get that kind of attention.
PROFESSOR JOHN WOINARSKI, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, CARLES DARWIN UNIVERSITY: We do need to also recognize that those species have as much right to existence and recovery as the eastern quoll, and at the moment, they’re being neglected. And with that neglect, it’s far more likely that those species will just disappear into oblivion without us even realizing that they were in danger, let alone becoming extinct.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The government says its invested more than 400 million dollars in threatened species recovery. But scientists say only a fraction of this is directly spent on species protection
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB: The problem is, it actually takes a lot of resources to keep species in the game. So we’re currently spending about a tenth on what we need to spend to actually conserve all of our threatened species that are on our threatened species list. We are already picking winners and losers of course. By not funding all species to the level that’s required to keep them in the game, we’re essentially allowing quite a lot of species to fail.
STEPHANIEMARCH: The new Environment Minister Sussan Ley was sworn in last month.
SUSSAN LEY, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER : It’s not about waving a cheque book at the levels of threatened species. It’s about sensible funding, which we do. It’s about-
STEPHANIE MARCH: Scientists would disagree that-
SUSSAN LEY: On-ground funding.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The scientists from the government funded Threatened Species Hub say Australia is spending a 10th of what it needs to, to save all the species on our Threatened Species list. What are you going to do about that?
SUSAN LEY: I would say that state governments need to engage on this as well, and that what I see as being a key intervention is managed by the state governments. Now, I’m not passing the buck to the States. I’m simply saying that this is not something the federal government can do alone.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Just before sunset in the Central Highlands in Victoria these volunteers are looking for Leadbeater’s Possums. Once thought to be extinct, the animal was rediscovered in the 1960s and declared the state’s faunal emblem
STEPHEN MEACHER, FRIENDS OF LEADBEATERS POSSUM: We think there are probably between 1,000 and 3,000 animals which is a very small population and they are listed now federally as critically endangered. The Zoological Society of London considers them the 10th most endangered mammal in the world.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Steve Meacher from Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum is trying to get more protection for the animal.
STEVE MEACHER, FRIENDS OF LEADBEATERS POSSUM: the situation in Australia is that a lot of this work isn’t being done by government agencies. So if volunteers like us weren’t doing it, it just wouldn’t be done and the animals would be going extinct .
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB : The Leadbeater’s possum as we know is a critically endangered species. It’s suffered catastrophic population declines over the last 20 years. They’re well documented. It’s probably one of our best documented species.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The volunteers try to spot the animals as they pop out of their nests. They’re only a hand-span long and have a distinguishing black stripe down their back. They’re so endangered, since 2014 every verified sighting triggers a 200 meter buffer zone protecting the area from logging.
STEVE MEACHER: : We’ve just observed two Leadbeater possums coming out of the nest crack.
STEPHANIE MARCH: So it is rare to see them like that?
STEVE MEACHER: So it is rare to see them at all but to have posing like that for us was a gift…just wonderful. Since the buffer rule came in there have been more than 500 new sightings of possums
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: The bottom line is that there’s been a huge amount of extra effort to find animals. That’s wonderful, but it doesn’t tell you what the decline is. That doesn’t tell you the trend. so When you go back to sites year after year, after year we can see that there’s been a 50% decline in the number of occupied sites in the last 20 years. The population trajectory for Leadbeater’s possum is clear. It’s significantly downwards.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Leadbeater’s possums need big, old trees to nest in. But the amount of suitable forest available for them is declining.
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER: We’re seeing record low levels of old-growth forest. We’re seeing increases in the number of fires. We’ve seen very little change in the level of pressure on the forest. In fact, it’s significantly greater than it’s ever been
STEPHANIE MARCH: A vast swathe of prime Leadbeater’s habitat was burned in the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. The area where they live is also a key source of timber for the state’s forestry industry.
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER: Another fire and ongoing logging would basically nail the rest of the populations .The remaining parts of the landscape are essentially the small scrappy bits with very few large old trees left within them. Essentially you’ll see rapid degradation of the remaining habitat, which is exactly what we’ve seen.
ROSS HAMPTON, AUSTRALIAN FOREST PRODUCTS ASSOCIATION : Forestry is a complex business. Anyone who has never had the chance to see it in operation, it’s an amazing thing to see the care and concern and attention to detail that takes place in our native forest operations.
DAVID LINDENMAYER: So this is a logging coup that was harvested probably a couple of years ago. Fire is also used as a tool by the forestry industry after logging to encourage regeneration
STEPHANIE MAYNE: Ecologist David Lindenmayer has studied these forests and the Leadbeater’s Possum for more than three decades. His work has won him an Order of Australia.
DAVID LINDENMAYER There are no big trees in the system. It is going to take 200 years for this area to become new habitat for animals like Leadbeater possums, greater gliders, yellow bellied gliders. Now the best part of two centuries before this system is going to be functional habitat for those threatened animals again.
STEPHANIE MARCH: But these regeneration fires sometimes get out of control.
DAVID LINDENMAYER: Well that’s totally fried, isn’t it? There’s just no way you’ll get animals in there.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Professor Lindenmayer and his colleague Lachlan McBurney are checking out this logging coup, right next to a Leadbeater’s possum buffer zone. The fire has burned part of the protected area.
DAVID LINDEMAYER: The whole idea of the buffer zones is to actually protect the habitat, and clearly that fire’s burned right into the area that had the records of the animals. So that’s not even mediocre management in terms of what we should be doing here.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Would that then be intentional or just careless?
DAVID LINDEMAYER: Careless. I feel appalled by this. I feel offended that people don’t take these wildlife issues, these conservation issues, seriously enough, so do their management properly. Remember these are public forests that are supposed to be being managed for all the range of values. The value of that area as a high conservation value area for leadbeater’s possum, and for other animals, is basically being desecrated.
REPORTER STEPHANIE MARCH: State-owned VicForests has told Four Corners:
It is “… investigating this to find potential improvements in these practices” And “burning is inherently difficult and this low intensity burn did go beyond containment lines. This happens in perhaps 1% of burns.”
ROSS HAMPTON, AUSTRALIAN FOREST PRODUCTS ASSOCIATION: Fires as we all know, are inexact sciences. So sometimes they may not be exactly across a line that you drew, they might be just a little bit inside it. I don’t know the specifics of this example.
STEPHANIE MARCH: After an increase in sightings, the forestry industry applied two years ago get the possum downgraded from critically endangered to endangered. It also cites a study that shows Leadbeaters possums in six areas upto 15 kilometres from their known range.
ROSS HAMPTON: The great news is that there are thousands and thousands of possums. That is wonderful news. Frankly, everyone involved in this whole process I think should be celebrating that. Most people are to be honest, because the forest industry cares deeply about threatened species.
STEPHANIE MARCH: What would be the benefit for your members of getting the Leadbeater’s possum down listed from critically endangered to endangered?
ROSS HAMPTON: Well, we haven’t really looked into what the benefit might be, we just want to make sure that the appropriate science is applied to all of the native animals that also cross into the native forest estate.
PROFESSOR JOHN WOINARSKI, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, CHARLES DARWIN UNIVERSITY: With that species, that there are more individuals turning up at the moment, and that’s largely because the census techniques are being increasingly better than they used to be, and we know that far more people are searching for them in the forest as well. Yes, we’re certainly detecting many more Leadbeater’s possums than we were 10 or 20 years ago, but that doesn’t alter the fact by any means, of the rate or decline, of population decline of that species.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Biologist John Woinarski helped draft a federal government recovery plan to save the Leadbeater’s Possum in 2016, but it’s never been finalised and implemented. Today the federal environment minister announced the possums critically endangered status will be retained.
PROFESSOR JOHN WOINARSKI: Should the recovery plan be implemented and approved, then it’s unlikely that that 200 meter buffer would be maintained. It would be most likely to be increased. Timber harvesting, currently, without the recovery plan, is being allowed to have a significant impact on the Leadbeater’s possum. I suspect the recovery plan, once implemented, would reduce the impact of timber harvesting on that species.
STEPHANIE MARCH, REPORTER: Critics say the longer that this recovery plan sits on the shelf, the more damage is being done to Leadbeater’s possum habitat that may be prevented by that recovery plan. Is this a top priority for you?
SUSSAN LEY ,FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: Well, you’re asking me something that I don’t have first hand knowledge of. I’m aware of the Leadbeater’s possum issue, and I know it concerns a lot of particularly people in the area of Victoria where it’s one of two unique habitats for that small Australian mammal. So I’m interested to see what we can do but I am not going to prejudge my advice.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews has been criticized for not doing enough to protect the possum
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB : I don’t think it’s clear yet that we can actually still have a viable timber industry and still have Leadbeater’s possum. I think we probably will lose it if we keep going the way we’re going.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Under immense pressure to keep the logging industry afloat in 2017 the Andrews government purchased a stake in a sawmill, with 61 million dollars of taxpayer money. Just two months ago VicForests announced a 5-year plan that allows it access to new areas within the Central Highlands for logging.
REPORTER STEPHANIE MARCH: Was the purchase of the mill a bad idea? Has that signed the death warrant for the Leadbeater’s possum?
PROFESSOR DAVID LINDENMAYER, ANU CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST:I ‘s certainly not going to help, with all that extra pressure on the forest. We need to remember that a huge amount of the forest was already burnt in 2009. Then the timber release plan just announced in late April, it’s going to ramp up even further pressure on an already heavily logged and extensively burnt landscape. The vast majority of species are not designed in an evolutionary sense, to be able to deal with this level of disturbance.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Premier Stephanie March from Four Corners. Have you put vested interests
PREMIER DANIEL ANDREWS: Sure.
REPORTER STEPHANIE MARCH: The Premier declined to do interview with Four Corners so we approached him at an event in Melbourne.
STEPHANIE MARCH: why won’t you do an interview with Four Corners about these issues?
PREMIER DANIEL ANDREWS: Well you’re interviewing me now.
STEPHANIE MARCH: But this is only because your office said you had no time to speak to us in the next three weeks so we have had to come and door stop you here.
DANIEL ANDREWS: Well you’re talking to me now.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Why won’t your environment minister do an interview?
DANIEL ANDREWS: Well you will need to speak to her.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Why won’t VicForests do an interview?
DANIEL ANDREWS: Well we can have an interview about interviews if you like.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Are you stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the interests of the unions and the forestry industry protecting the Leadbeater’s Possum?
DANIEL ANDREWS: No.
STEPHANIE ANDREWS: What did you get out of purchasing the Hayfield Sawmill in terms of protecting the Leadbeater’s Possum?
DANIEL ANDREWS: Well we were able to secure the livelihoods of many people and I think if you went and had a chat to them, they might be a little more supportive of that than you seem to be, but at the same time, these are challenging issues. Finding a balance is not easy, but we remain committed to doing that. This is unfinished business and this industry faces some really significant challenges and we’re committed to working to try and find the balance-point that deals with issues of biodiversity and threatened species, together with the sustainability of our forests and protecting jobs.
STEPHANIE MARCH: In the southern forests of Tasmania another threatened species is struggling to survive. Dr Dejan Stojanovic is inspecting the damage done by a fire that was caused by a lightning strike.
DEJAN STOJANOVIC: Jesus. That used to be a very big tree. My god.
STEPHANIE MARCH: This tree was hundreds of years old – there are very few like it left in these forests. It was a home for the animal Dr Stojanovic has spent the last nine years studying – the swift parrot
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC, CONSERVTION BIOLOGIST, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: We’re really lucky to work on Swift parrots, because they’re beautiful, they’re charismatic. A lot of people already gave a damn about Swift parrots before we even started working on this species. But it’s a bit of a different issue when it comes to formally protecting them.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Swift parrots fly from the mainland to breed here on Tasmania’s east coast. They are noisy, active, and designed to fly fast. These birds are in peril.
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC, ANU CONSERVATION ECOLOGIST: Swift parrots are now listed as critically endangered. Critically endangered is one step before extinct, so really it’s about as bad as it can get, without them l all being dead. Swift parrots are literally the size, shape, and color of gum leaves, and they live in gum trees, so counting them is really a challenge. The best educated guesses are about 2,000 birds. Basically a 1,000 pairs. But I think that that’s pretty optimistic, to be honest.
STEPHANIE MARCH: He says funding to help the parrots is hard to come by.
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC, ANU CONSERVATION ECOLOGIST: Tasmania threatened species conservation is so poorly funded in this country that we’ve quite regularly had to turn to crowdfunding to fund really basic aspects of our research. So, for instance, nest boxes are a quite widely applied tool for threatened species, but we had no idea if they’d work on Swift parrots. But where are you going to get a grant to do a trial to see if nest boxes will work on Swift parrots? The money for that just doesn’t exist. And so we had to crowd fun.
STEPHANIE MARCH: These birds are facing multiple threats. Like for many Australian animals… invasive species are a huge problem
SUSSAN LEY, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: Across rural Australia, there are too many introduced pests and animals attacking and changing our native animal habitat. That’s the area that I want to focus on as a Minister, because something can be done.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB: Unfortunately, invasive predators in particular are very difficult to manage. Cats are everywhere now in Australia and they eat about a million birds a day, 360 million birds a year are consumed by cats. Foxes, probably a similar sized impact. So we really do have to address this if we’re going to actually conserve biodiversity in this country. But when you’ve got a threat that’s everywhere, it’s very hard to manage.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The problem for swift parrots and other birds in this forest …isn’t cats or foxes… it’s another invasive animal
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC : The primary cause of their decline today is predation by introduced sugar gliders in context of severe habitat loss that’s ongoing across Tasmania today. Sugar gliders, which are introduced to Tasmania, crawl into the nests of Swift parrots at night, where they kill and eat the female and her eggs. And in some places, up to 100% of Swift parrots can be killed in a nesting colony. And on average, about half of the female parrots that attempt to nest in a given year are actually killed by gliders. That’s 50% every year.
STEPHANIE MARCH: But scientists say fire and logging in these same forests exacerbates the problem.
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC We found, with our research over 10 years of looking at this problem, when you start to cut out sections of forest and leave a smaller and smaller patchwork of suitable habitat, that’s when the glider problem escalates. So it looks like the more we kind of hem Swift parrots in between deforestation and their predators, we’re actually escalating all the processes that are driving these birds to extinction
STEPHANIE MARCH: Why can’t logging in swift parrot habitats stop and happen elsewhere in Tasmania instead?
ROSS HAMPTON, AUSTRALIAN FOREST PRODUCTS ASSOCIATION: Forestry operations in Tasmania are being modified, they’re changing their practices to try to assist with the swift parrot problem, the crisis.
STEPHANIE MARCH: How are they doing that?
ROSS HAMPTON: They’re modifying the coops that they access, and changing the time of year, that sort of thing, to make sure that they’re minimizing their impact. Anyone who’s saying that if you stop forestry altogether you’re going to save swift parrots is wrong, and I think they know they’re wrong because the greatest danger to the parrot is the sugar glider.
PROFESSOR JOHN WOINARSKI, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, CHARLES DARWIN UNIVERSITY: The options for managing predation by sugar gliders, are really challenging. I don’t think that’s one that we can manage anywhere near as easily as we can. The things like zoning of forestry, reducing the amount of timber harvesting that occurs on critical areas for nesting for swift parrots. We can and should be able to manage that threat much more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The state and federal agreement that allows logging in Tasmania’s forests has just been extended for another 20 years.
Why should we care if the Swift parrot becomes extinct?
DR DEJAN STOJANOVIC, CONSERVATION BIOLOGIST, AUSTRALIAN NATIONAL UNIVERSITY: If we can’t bring ourselves to care about the Swift parrot, then what about the next thing, and what about the next thing after that? Where’s the end point of that attitude? We really need to protect Swift parrots and to figure out a way to protect animals like this and bring them back from the brink, for all the other creatures that are on their way to becoming as threatened as Swift parrots.
STEPHANIE MARCH: There are more than 1800 plants and animals on the Australia’s threatened species list.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB: A third of our listed threatened species are not monitored at all. So we could be losing them and we wouldn’t know.
SUSSAN LEY, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: Well, the monitoring does happen at state government level, as well as federal government level, and the Commonwealth can’t ..
STEPHANIE MARCH: But, they’re on your list.
SUSAN LEY: They’re on the list, because it’s our responsibility to list them, but it’s not our responsibility to take every single next step of intervention.
DR ROB CLEMENS, MIGRATORY SHOREBIRD EXPERT I guess there must be some sort of a disconnect, because clearly, we have threatened species legislation in this country. But it’s not resourced and enacted very well. And it’s not really working, at the end of the day.
STEPHANIE MARCH: In Morton Bay in Queensland, Dr Rob Clemens and volunteer bird watcher Rob Bush are looking for one very special bird – the critically endangered Eastern Curlew.
ROB CLEMENS: So we have got some pelicans, and pied oystercatchers and cormorants but haven’t laid eyes on any Eastern Curlew yet.
ROB BUSH: I can’t see any at the moment but let’s go around the other side.
DR ROB CLEMENS: Remarkable birds, the more you get to know them. They’re using the position of the sun and the moon and the stars as a calendar and as a clock and also as a navigational aid. So they’ve got all these built-in things that enable them to traverse the globe twice a year. In their lifetime, they might go 400,000 kilometres and that’s from here to the moon, plus a little bit.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: The Eastern Curlew spends the majority of its time here in Australia. The bird’s population has declined 80 percent in 30 years
DR ROB CLEMENS: So the Eastern curlew in particular come primarily from northern China and southern Russia, for the most part. An Eastern curlew will leave here in March, earliest late February and will head up often to the Yellow Sea. there it will fatten up again before it goes to its breeding grounds in Russia.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: These Morton Bay mudflats are an important feeding ground for the Eastern Curlew. They poke their long bills into the mud to find shellfish and crabs to eat.
ROB CLEMENS, MIGRATORY BIRD EXPERT: So an Eastern curlew will get here and there’ll be kind of skin and bones, so they’ll have run out of all that fat and they’ll have to eat out on the mud flats.
There are things that you can do for a number of species to recreate feeding habitat. But not for Eastern curlew. That mudflat that they use they seem highly adapted to it and for whatever reason, they just don’t use other places to feed.
STEPHANIE MARCH: This mudflat where Eastern Curlews forage has been declared an internationally important wetland under a global treaty called the Ramsar Convention.
Now the birds face losing part of this crucial habitat. This is where a private developer wants to build up to three thousand six hundred apartments as part of a new residential, commercial and tourism precinct.
ROBERT BUSH: This whole area through here, will be made into the new development. It will be a small pleasure boat harbor in the middle of it. So this whole area will change.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: The development would cover 42 hectares of the Ramsar site.
JUDITH HOYLE BIRDLIFE AUSTRALIA : It’s actually going to be out on the sea, on the mudflats. It’s an incredibly beautiful place, and yet they’re going to excavate, they’re going to dewater, and they’re going to put a concrete development and canals and marinas actually out onto Moreton Bay.
*LANG WALKER: A lot of people just storm into this industry and they don’t realise the time it takes to get approvals , the environment issues that face us.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: The developer behind the proposal is Lang Walker. He is one of the richest men in Australia, with an estimated net worth of more than 3.5 billion dollars.
*And his company is a big political donor. The same financial year the Walker Corporation submitted the first proposal for the development, it donated more than 200 thousand dollars to the Federal Liberal Party.
Do donations to political parties have an impact when it comes to making decisions under our environmental protection act?
SUSSAN LEY, FEDERAL ENVIRONMENT MINISTER: No they don’t.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: What about the $200,000 that the Walker Corporation, who’s proposing this development in Toondah Harbour, gave to the liberal party during its initial proposal phase? What do you think they wanted for that money?
SUSSAN LEY: I have no knowledge about that, I have no personal understanding or view about the corporation, the process, or any of those on the ground issues. What I can *categorically say is that donations, any which way, to whomever, wherever, will have no impact whatsoever on the decisions that I make as environment minister.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: Documents obtained from the federal environment department through Freedom of Information list the Ramsar Secretariat as opposing the development in 2017.
*Despite the secretariat opposing it, the state and federal governments have explored ways for it to go ahead – including a controversial move – changing the Ramsar boundary.
To do that they would have to argue the development is in the ‘urgent national interest.’
JUDITH HOYLE, BIRDLIFE AUSTRALIA : That’s the thing that we find totally incredulous, that the Australian government is to prepare to trash its international reputation, because that’s what’s going to happen.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Will you consider changing the Ramsar boundary to accommodate the development?
SUSSAN LEY: Let’s wait and see what the advice is. I’m not going to speculate at this stage. I’m simply not going to speculate.
*STEPHANIE MARCH: The Walker Corporation says changing the boundary is no longer under consideration. But documents show the federal environment department still has serious concerns.
It warns the current proposal: will seriously disrupt the lifecycle of Eastern Curlews and other migratory species, that it’s likely to have significant impacts on dolphins, turtles, dugongs and koalas and that no development of this scale or likely impact has been approved within an existing Ramsar site in Australia.
Despite this, the department has recommended the project move to the next stage of assessment – an environmental impact statement, or EIS .
*JAMES TREZISE : The department of the environment has initially advised that this project should be considered clearly unacceptable, shouldn’t even go to to an EIS. It shouldn’t get past the first base because it is going into an internationally protected wetland, which Australia signed up to and ratified the Ramsar Convention and it should be you know safe from development.
*DR ROBERT CLEMENS : Here in Australia, there’s political sort of ministerial discretion. So as long as the Minister has decided, I’ve considered those issues, can make a decision that’s completely against the advice of the department or what would be in the best interest of conservation, generally. So it’s that political wiggle room that exists within the Australian framework that’s a huge problem.
SUSSAN LEY: I’m confident that the processes will be handled correctly, that the advice and the investigations about all of the important matters of environmental significance that you have raised will be included in the advice that’s provided to me.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The Walker Corporation says the latest plan includes more conservation areas but environmentalists say it’s not good enough
JUDITH HOYLE, BIRDLIFE AUSTRALIA: It’s a Ramsar site, it’s home to critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable migratory shorebirds. It’s a key biodiversity area, and it’s a marine park. And we can’t protect that. It’s an absolute exemplar of why our system, our nature laws are broken.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The Walker Corporation proposed to offset the impact of its development by protecting Eastern Curlew habitat thousands of kilometres away in the Yellow Sea.
JAMES TREZISE: Putting offsets for development impacts on one side of the world in another where the Australian government has no jurisdiction, no capacity to enforce those offsets, no capacity to monitor them. It’s fantasy.
We’re going to go and protect something in the Yellow Sea, but we’re going to lose that habitat at this end of these birds migratory route. And it is a really important place for the eastern curlew. So where are they going to go on the southern end of their migration, it doesn’t stack up and it doesn’t make sense.
STEPHANIE MARCH: James Trezise is a policy analyst for the Australian Conservation Foundation.
He used to work for the federal environment department and helped write the ‘offset’ policy. He says offsets are supposed to be a last resort but they are being exploited by developers.
JAMES TREZISE: Looking at it now, I’d say it’s been a fundamental failure in implementation. We have seen very little evidence of biodiversity offsets actually benefiting threatened species.
STEPHANIE MARCH: The development still needs federal government approval
JUDITH HOYLE, BIRDLIFE AUSTRALIA: The odds are very heavily weighted that the Walker Group will get their development to go across the line.
STEPHANIE MARCH: But the Eastern Curlew has a lot of supporters who are determined to save it.
JUDITH HOYLE: Our protest today is about respecting Ramsar and getting our politicians to stand up and make nature laws count. We decided that we were going to draw a line in the mud to say no to this development.
Now, we expected 100 people, maybe 150. Over 500 people turned up. It was a massive turnout. So this is generating outrage at a broader community level. Its supporters believe the birds decline is symbolic of a much bigger problem.
Our nature laws are broken – that something that tickets every single conservation box can be Okay are we going to put 3,600 apartments on it.
Not on our watch. Thank you.
DR ROBERT CLEMENS, MIGRATORY BIRD EXPERT: I mean we’re getting to a point where we’re reducing the capacity for this planet to do the things that it needs to do for us to survive.
But certainly, if we lose something like the Eastern curlew, it is just unnecessary, totally avoidable. And you wouldn’t go burn the Mona Lisa, because you could. You’d put it somewhere and keep it safe.
STEPHANIE MARCH: A recent UN report found across the world one million species are at risk of being wiped out
JAMES TREZISE, AUSTRALIAN CONSERVATION FOUNDATION : What that report says is that it’s not just going to threaten the plants and animals, but we are an interconnected ecosystem.
It’s going to actually start having knock on effects to us as well and our society and in a whole range of ways. So it does represent a wake up call.
PROFESSOR BRENDAN WINTLE, THREATENED SPECIES RECOVERY HUB: We are in an extinction crisis and it’s real.
Mass extinctions in historical times have occurred due to cataclysms. You know, the impact of a meteor on Earth, and the equivalent of a nuclear winter.
Now we’re seeing extinction rates akin to those historical extinction events, brought about by humans.
STEPHANIE MARCH: Australia has one of the worst extinction records on the planet… and scientists say we’re not doing enough to turn around this human-induced crisis.
ANDROO KELLY, TROWUNNA SANCTUARY: Look, it’s embarrassing. To be an Australian, it’s embarrassing being involved with wildlife, to be an Australian, to have this record of extinction and still not really show that we’re doing anything about it.
BRENDAN WINTLE : There’s no real sign of it abating in the near future. If we want it to stop, we’re going to have to do a lot more than we’re currently doing.
We have millions of years of evolution behind every one of these things. They’re like amazing artworks. Every time we lose one, I think we have lost something of ourselves and we’ve lost something of society.