Loving species to extinction

An enduring memory of my childhood is coming upon spring orchids in the dry Derwent Valley bush. The greenhoods were first, followed by splashes of blue, white, pink, yellow and maroon as multitudes of these little floral gems emerged to strut their stuff.

Seeing such beauty, the only thing for this child to do was bring it into the home. I would gather as many blooms as my small hands could hold and put them in a glass of water to brighten the kitchen windowsill for a few days.

Those dry hillsides are favoured habitats for many of Tasmania’s 200-plus orchid species. I now know that they need particular pollinators, soils and fungi and that many species are down to a few isolated specimens. Picking handfuls of them, year after year, was a bad idea. It wasn’t nearly as bad as turning their bush habitat into a pine plantation, which happened soon after I left home, but the problem started with me.

Environmental scientist Mark Wapstra warned last year that public enthusiasm for Tasmanian orchids is putting them in danger of being loved to death, bringing more people to sites and leading to rare specimens being accidentally damaged or killed.

We see it play out again and again. Eco-tourism ventures promoted by images of magnificent “untouched” natural vistas. Fast boats to cut sightseers’ down-time. Video of a plaything – a rare baby dolphin bringing multitudes to be photographed touching, kissing, handling it on the beach where it washed up, and where it dies, smothered by love.

A 2018 study found that the total biomass of humans plus their livestock and poultry is 18 times that of all wild mammals and birds. But that biological success of our species is also dangerous. The greatest threat to wild species – and ultimately to us – comes from the billions of individual humans with disposable income.

We’re none of us eco-criminals, which is to say we don’t set out to kill those we love, but we spare too little thought for the natural world out there. As we increasingly seek images from nature and personal contact with wildlife, those natural resources are desecrated, damaged and destroyed by our missteps. We are, after all, merely human.

The problem really is that our flaws are amplified in our most powerful decision-makers. Encouraging and capitalising on our excesses, they have pointedly ignored the connection between our success as a species, with our unprecedented power over nature, and what this means in the future. Living in the moment – that is, from each election to the next – means more to them than thinking and planning for the long term.

Promotional images of vistas and bug-eyed baby animals, sometimes in politicians’ arms, are hiding the truth. Biodiversity is not really about the standout rare mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, fish, trees and flowers whose plight makes the news. Biodiversity is countless millions of interdependent species, mostly hidden from sight.

All of us – including Peter Gutwein, Scott Morrison and the rest of our leaders – know in our gut that natural variability is our lifeline. We all know that where human industry attacks landscapes and habitats, variability is lost, and our future diminishes. 

Conserving land and sea habitats where species are most abundant, mainly land and marine forests, is essential to our own viability. As carbon stores these places are vital, but they are even more vital as natural habitat. The Greens and conservation groups are right to stand up against native forest logging and marine fish farming, activities that are literally strangling the life out of our island home.

Citing natural values, Western Australia is ending logging in natural areas within two years, and Tasmania must do the same. But more than this, we must reset our thinking and public discourse. In the coming federal campaign, untrammelled growth will be represented as progress. In fact it is dangerous, even deadly, with us as the ultimate victims. 

Reversing the loss of species demands that we stop destroying natural habitat, cut air, water and soil pollution and control disease in vulnerable species. To inform us about all this, the Tasmanian Independent Science Council is bringing together a group of experts at a free online seminar from 6 pm on Thursday.

Tasmanian threatened species: problems and solutions features forest ecologist Jennifer Sanger, who will speak about the threatened Swift parrot; disease ecologist Rodrigo Hamede (Tasmanian devil); marine biologist Jemina Stuart-Smith (handfish); and lawyer Ben Richardson (eco-restoration and climate refuges). Discussion will be led by Jamie Kirkpatrick.

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