Final report | Christmas Island Expert Working Group

  • The Australian Government's response to the final report can be seen here
  • The interim report can be found here

Executive summary | Introduction

The Christmas Island Expert Working Group (EWG) was formed in February 2009 in response to growing concern about the possibility of extinction of the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi), the island's only insectivorous bat. The working group quickly recognised that the threat of extinction of this bat was real, and that its status was a symptom of more general ecological management problems of the island as a whole. Following an interim report (Beeton et al., 2009), this view was endorsed by the Minister and the EWG was expanded and re-briefed to include examination of all threats to the island's ecology, biodiversity management and any other issues relating to the conservation management of Christmas Island and its surrounds. This final report reflects that history.

The working group notes that failure to resolve conservation issues on Christmas Island has been an ongoing concern. There have been previous inquiries by the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Conservation (1974) and the Senate Standing Committee on Science, Technology and the Environment (1983). Concern is also expressed in many published works and internal reports of the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts (DEWHA). The previous inquiries characteristically attempted to balance mining and a specific conservation issue - the conservation of Abbott's Booby - and resulted in the creation of the Christmas Island National Park and enhanced rehabilitation after mining. Current problems arise from invasive species establishing on the island as a whole, not just the national park.

The major difference in focus between previous reviews and this one is that this report seeks to provide a comprehensive review by independent experts of all available information and to address a wide brief that focuses on the conservation of all the Island's unique values.

The Australian Territory of Christmas Island (10° 30' S, 105° 39' E) is a remote tropical oceanic island that covers an area of 135 km2 and has 73 kilometres of coastline. It lies 360 km to the south of the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in the northern Indian Ocean and is the limestone capped peak of an ancient volcano that rises 5000 m above the sea floor. Surrounding the Island is a coral reef system that abruptly drops off to the abyssal plain.

Christmas Island was settled 120 years ago. Today the Settlement comprises a small community of around 1,300 to 1,500 people. In the past, the phosphate mining enterprise has been the basis of the island's economy. Today the island's economy is being overtaken by the activities of the Australian Government's Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) housing up to 2000 asylum seekers seeking entry to Australia. In the last decade, the Australian Government developed an Immigration Detention Centre (IDC) to house up to 2000 asylum seekers seeking entry to Australia. The Federal Attorney General's Department, DEWHA, the Shire of Christmas Island, and Phosphate Resources Limited all have control over areas on the Island. Around four per cent of the Island is taken up by the Settlement and associated facilities, 14 per cent by phosphate mining activities, 19 per cent is Unallocated Crown Land and 63 per cent is the rainforest-dominated Christmas Island National Park.

The Island has extraordinary terrestrial, subterranean and marine conservation values that are being diminished by management deficiencies and threats that are pervasive, chronic and increasing. Unfortunately, these problems will not have simple solutions.

Christmas Island has already suffered two confirmed extinctions (two native rodent species (Rattus macleari and R. nativitatis), and two probable extinctions, the Christmas Island pipistrelle (Pipistrellus murrayi) and the Christmas Island shrew (Crocidura trichura). Furthermore, the Island is currently witnessing further rapid declines in other important species. At risk of extinction in the short to medium term are its few remaining endemic reptile species, some of its endemic birds and, quite possibly, a fifth mammal, the Christmas Island flying fox (Pteropus natalis) which is the only remaining indigenous mammal on the island. It is also probable that seven plant species and several invertebrate species are extinct.

Christmas Island is also undergoing dramatic losses of the Island's endemic Red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis). The Red crab is not only the island's most conspicuous and remarkable species, but also the pivot of its unique ecology. The island's crab-dominated rainforests and remarkable ecological structure is of international significance and, along with the other biodiversity attributes of the island, is potentially a major tourist attraction. The EWG also recognised that the status of the Robber crab (Birgus latro) is of concern. This species is the world's largest terrestrial arthropod, once numerous on many other tropical islands, but Christmas Island now has the only remaining significant population. There are also concerns for the island's remarkable stygofauna (fauna of underground water-filled voids).

The EWG recognises the pervasive effects of the many pressures on the Christmas Island ecosystem and the enormous challenges that these pose for implementing appropriate management responses. After an appraisal of several hundred reports, publications and documents relevant to Christmas Island, numerous consultations with experts and a visit to the Island, the EWG has arrived at a series of specific recommendations that are a product its own deliberations. Inevitably, some of the recommendations echo and endorse those made by others, and the EWG acknowledges the significant contributions by many researchers and Parks Australia staff who have made this synthesis possible. Attribution is assigned where appropriate in the report.

The EWG's recommendations set out the long-term and substantial changes that will be required for the successful future management of Christmas Island and its surrounding seas as a single ecological entity. We warn that a 'business as usual' approach in future will mean that management will fail and the extraordinary national asset that is Christmas Island's biodiversity will be replaced by a combination of many introduced and a few resilient native species. That outcome would be a failure in biodiversity conservation and would compromise the potentially secure economic future for the island as a tourist venue.

Expert Working Group members

Associate Professor Bob Beeton (Chair)
Dr Andrew Burbidge
Professor Gordon Grigg
Professor Peter Harrison
Dr Ric How
Dr Bill Humphreys
Mr Norm McKenzie
Dr John Woinarski

Ms Anne-Marie Delahunt
Ms Kerry Cameron
Mr Harry Abrahams
Ms Meryl Triggs

8 September 2010