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A speech to the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks & Aquaria Annual Conference


by the

Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Senator the Hon Robert Hill.

Sea World, Queensland
March 20, 2000

This year the world's environmental spotlight will be firmly on Australia. In June, Australia will host the international celebrations of World Environment Day, while in July we will host the 52nd annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission.

I hope to use both of these events to highlight one of Australia's remarkable environmental success stories - our efforts to protect the whale species of the world.

As you would be aware, Australia had an economically successful whaling industry for many decades - perhaps too successful in one sense. The Southern Right whale was hunted almost to extinction before the far-sighted and decisive action of the Fraser Government in the late 1970s which led to a ban on whaling in Australian waters. Since then, Southern Right numbers have recovered steadily to the point where we can be reasonably confident of the species' on-going survival.

More importantly, along the way we have learned of new economic opportunities associated with the preservation of whales. Whale watching and its related tourism is now a major money spinner for regional communities such as Victor Harbor in South Australia and Hervey Bay in Queensland. By 1995 these activities were injecting almost $10 million into regional economies, and that value would have grown rapidly since.

So a sound ecological decision taken more than two decades ago is now paying off in a commercial sense.

Australia will use the IWC meeting to continue our push for a global sanctuary to protect all species of whales. We will use our own experience to show the remaining whaling nations that in the long run they have more to gain financially by conserving not hunting whales.

The decision by the Fraser Government to ban whaling was indeed a timely one. One can only wonder as to how much longer it would have taken the whaling industry to push Southern Right numbers below a point of no return. Unfortunately the timeliness of this action has been the exception rather than the norm in Australian history.

Since European settlement, Australia has lost at least 54 animal species and 64 plant species. In addition to this, 1,442 species of animals and plants are currently listed under the Commonwealth's Endangered Species Protection Act as being either endangered or vulnerable.

They are the victims of the consequences - both direct and indirect - of our actions.

Many of the losses of animal species can be attributed to the introduction of feral animals such as foxes, rabbits and cats. An even greater number can be attributed to inappropriate land practices such as the draining of wetlands or broadscale landclearing which has decimated natural habitats.

For many of the species currently listed as endangered - both plants and animals - survival will depend on our ability and willingness to make wise decisions about the way we manage our natural environment.

And the picture is certainly not all gloom and doom - although some high-profile international environmentalists seem to be able to make a healthy living out of touring Australia on the strength of such negative sentiments.

Australia possesses an advanced pool of scientific knowledge, we can draw on financial resources such as the Natural Heritage Trust, and, most importantly, we have a community which is committed to preserving our native species

And we have, of course, our zoos and aquaria to assist in the task.

I recently gave a speech in Sydney where I questioned why it was that Australia's environmental achievements usually receive more recognition internationally than at home. I was able to go through a lengthy list of areas where Australia is considered to be a world leader in environmental efforts - ozone activities, world heritage and oceans policy to name but a few. It was remiss of me, however, not to mention the work done by our zoos and aquaria in conserving endangered species - both domestically and internationally.

Zoos contribute on many levels to the preservation of our native animals. The modern zoo has a strong focus on public education rather than mere public entertainment. Zoos engender in our children a love of animals and inspire them with a sense of wonder and adventure.

Many of the members of the public who regularly send me letters and postcards calling for action to protect whales, bilbies, dugongs and other threatened species would have had their first experience of native Australian animals when they visited one of our zoos as children.

Our children are now more aware than ever of the predicaments faced by so many of our native species, thanks to the education experience provided by zoos. For example, one of the first enclosures children encounter when they visit the Adelaide Zoo is that of the yellow-footed rock wallaby. With the help of Australian zoos, wild populations of the yellow-footed rock wallaby are slowly being rebuilt. Through the Natural Heritage Trust our government has been able to financially support Operation Bounceback, a program which aims to ensure the success of the reintroduction of captive-bred wallabies into the Flinders Ranges.

So drawing on our collective resources, we can have confidence that when these same children have grown up they will be able to travel to the Flinders Ranges and see these animals in their natural habitat.

This is, of course, but one of the many success stories involving captive breeding in Australian zoos.

Governments recognise that zoo-based expertise in managing and breeding captive populations is unmatched by any other institution. We have capitalised on this where captive breeding is identified as an essential component of the recovery process for endangered species.

For example, the Greater Stick-nest Rat had been listed under Commonwealth legislation as being endangered. Once widespread, the species had become extinct on the mainland with only a small population surviving on the Franklin Islands off South Australia. A captive breeding program started by the Monarto Zoo in 1985 has led to their successful reintroduction onto the mainland with a four-fold increase in their numbers, resulting in their down-listing from endangered to vulnerable.

It is an achievement we should celebrate while remembering, of course, that there remain on the endangered list a further 101 species of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals all in need of the same attention.

Your work in conserving internationally threatened species has also reflected great credit on Australia.

Australian zoos have made a great contribution internationally to preserving endangered species through captive breeding programs and contributions to research and husbandry investigations, education and awareness raising.

Though individual zoos may take a lead, the nature of these contributions has been essentially cooperative with species such as Orangutans, Golden Lion Tamarins, White Rhinoceros, Lowland Gorillas, and Prezewalski's Horse among the examples of Australasian Zoo's outstanding achievements in the preservation of the endangered species of other countries.

In some of these cases, work by Australian zoos has seen the successful reintroduction of species into their native homeland. In others, our zoos act as a genetic backup, preserving a species which cannot be reintroduced in its homeland due to habitat or other man-made pressures.

Zoos also contribute significant resources, expertise and funds to in-situ conservation programs. For example, the Adelaide and Melbourne Zoos assist Indonesian wildlife authorities to protect the Sumatran rhinoceros in its native habitat, Sea World directs field studies, in collaboration with universities, on native turtles, whales, dugongs, sharks and other marine species, and Melbourne Zoo contributes to Philippine Crocodile conservation.

Your involvement in this in-situ conservation work is an acknowledgment that the establishment of viable populations of endangered species in captivity is not a conservation end in itself. It also is a powerful message to a domestic audience on where our priorities should be in conserving our native species.

Australian zoos should be a last line of defence against the threat of the loss of one of our native species. Unfortunately at the moment, it appears you are in the front-line, in the thick of the action.

Our efforts must be focussed on taking actions that prevent the decline of our native species to the point where they require intervention by means of captive breeding. If we are to save our native species from extinction, our first efforts must be focussed on preserving them in their native habitat.

I suppose, in a sense, I'm saying I'd ultimately like to put you out of work in terms of having to captive-breed Australian native species to support threatened native populations. Unfortunately, that day seems a long way off.

As I mentioned earlier, the future of so many of our threatened plant and animal species will be determined by decisions we take in managing our natural resources. Our wildlife is facing increasing competition for use of the natural environment from human activity.

The most obvious of these man-made pressures is the practice of broadscale landclearing which unfortunately continues at an unsustainable rate in both Queensland and New South Wales.

As a South Australian, I am only too well aware of the impact of such actions on native habitat and the resultant loss of animal, bird and plant species. In the Mount Lofty Ranges which surround Adelaide, only 10 per cent of the original native vegetation remains intact. This led to predictions as far back as 1980 of the eventual loss of up to 50 species of breeding land-birds from the region. Since then the disappearance of seven species has been confirmed with another 10 species considered to be in a precarious position.

In contrast, Kangaroo Island retains about 40 per cent of its original native vegetation and, apart from the early loss of the Kangaroo Island Emu, has suffered no definite local bird extinctions so far.

So the lesson of history is clear - there is a limit beyond which clearing of native vegetation will impact seriously on the populations of native species.

Unfortunately it is a lesson which not all have heeded.

The Howard Government has made every effort to take a leading role in protecting species from man-made impacts.

In July of this year, our new Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act will come into force.

The World Wide Fund for Nature has described this piece of legislation as "the biggest win for the Australian environment in 25 years".

A key feature of the Act is that it increases protection for nationally threatened species and ecological communities. For the first time ever, Federal legislation provides protection for threatened species wherever they occur in Australia.

State boundaries are no longer a barrier to effective national action on threatened species. The Act enables the Commonwealth to join with the States in a truly national scheme of biodiversity conservation.

Specifically, the Act provides that actions that are likely to significantly impact on nationally threatened species and communities will require assessment and approval either from the Commonwealth Government, or from the State Government under an accredited management plan.

In addition to this legislative action, we have provided funding through the Natural Heritage Trust for specific endangered species projects as well as funding the largest-ever native revegetation effort through the Trust's Bushcare program. But Commonwealth action alone will not be enough to reverse the decline in native vegetation cover and its resulting impact on species numbers.

We will require some hard decision to be taken by both State and local governments, as well as landholders.

Here in Queensland, the Beattie Government continues to duck its responsibility on this key issue.

The Queensland Government has refused to place controls on landclearing on freehold land unless the Federal Government pays the bill for compensation, expected to be in the order of $103 million.

In doing so, the Premier is holding to ransom the future of native animal species and threatened ecological communities.

No other Australian State has received Commonwealth funding to implement similar landclearing controls.

Even the Queensland Government's intended controls of landclearing on leasehold land may be of little consequence as it has already issued permits for the clearing of another 1.5 million hectares.

I would suggest that while the Beattie Government retains its head in the sand attitude to the problem of landclearing, there will be a continued demand for the services of the captive breeding programs of our zoos.

The Howard Government has also placed a strong emphasis on the protection of our marine species.

Apart from our efforts to bring about an end to whaling, we have led global efforts to protect the albatross, the Patagonian toothfish and the dugong.

Our system of dugong sanctuaries - established with the support of the former Borbidge Government - along the Queensland coastline is a prime example of protecting native species in their natural environment.

In that regard, we have aquaria, such as Sea World to help back up our efforts. Sea World has been nursing a baby dugong for some months now with an aim to eventually release it back into the ocean.

We have also taken legislative action where required, a recent example of which was the introduction of Commonwealth regulations to ensure that appropriate environmental assessments are done for aquaculture projects which may impact on the health of the Great Barrier Reef.

Our actions were attacked by the Queensland Government who later faced the embarrassment of having to place their own environmental protection order on the aquaculture operation which had triggered the Commonwealth's concern.

Once again, Commonwealth actions alone will not be enough to adequately protect marine species. State Governments and industry groups need to play their role.

I remain hopeful that the Queensland government will lift its game and support our actions to ensure the sustainability of the fishing and trawling industries in the Great Barrier Reef region and to minimise their impacts on other marine species such as marine turtles.

In the end it's a simple choice. Queensland can either choose to take actions such as the introduction of turtle exclusion devices in its fishing fleet across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area or we will once again face the prospect that aquaria will be required to sustain a rapidly depleting marine turtle population.

State Governments are also doing their fishing industries no favours by resisting our efforts to ensure sustainable practices. A fishing fleet will make no profit from an exhausted fish stock. Other industries such as tourism will also suffer from the impacts of these unsustainable actions on non-target species such as turtles.

More importantly, Australia will be the loser in terms of further depletion of our unique and diverse range of native species.

The World Zoo Conservation Strategy states that the greatest purpose to be served by the existence of zoos, aquaria and other animal collections is the contribution they can make to conservation, both directly and indirectly.

It is a principle embraced by Australian zoos and aquaria. The Commonwealth is also moving to further update and strengthen our legislative base to assist you in this endeavour.

In particular we will be upgrading the Wildlife Protection (Regulation of Exports and Imports) Act 1983 that implements Australia's obligations under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

This year we will implement our election commitment to integrate this Act into the EPBC Act framework, and in doing so improve protection for endangered species and Australia's native species. Zoo-to-zoo exports and imports of animals are regulated by this Act. Our amendments will update the requirements applying to zoo-to-zoo transfers, removing some of the unnecessary requirements while tightening some of the loopholes. The amendments will also provide greater recognition of the public display, education and conservation role played by private zoos. As I mentioned earlier, this role is vital in inspiring the environmental decision-makers of tomorrow - our children.

Ladies and gentlemen, Australian zoos and aquaria have gone through a remarkable evolution.

Once viewed mainly as a place of recreation or entertainment, zoos and aquaria have now developed a central role in the education of our population and in the preservation of our endangered species - both domestically and internationally.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that human pressures will continue to impact on our natural environment and the species that inhabit it.

Our challenge is to ensure that our use of the environment does not lead to the further depletion of the populations of our native species.

And while our zoos and aquaria will always be there as a fall-back option to preserve native species, our focus must be on maintaining healthy populations of these species in their natural habitat.

As I mentioned earlier, zoos and aquaria are already playing an important role in efforts to achieve this goal.

I thank and applaud you for your efforts to date and look forward to your continued support in preserving Australia's unique natural biodiversity.


Commonwealth of Australia