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From moonlight jewels to common browns: what do butterfly accounts say about biodiversity conservation?

by | Feb 9, 2023 | 0 comments

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By Suzi Bond and Michael Vardon*

Biodiversity is important and butterflies are beautiful. But Australia’s biodiversity is in steep decline. Maybe environmental accounts can help here, and butterflies are a great example demonstrating how.

We have around 450 butterfly species in Australia, almost all of them native. Seven butterflies are listed as under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act), although 19 more are thought to be eligible for listing. While some species are commonly observed and adaptable – such as the common brown – others, such as the moonlight jewel, are not. Accounting for these differences begins with understanding.

Moonlight jewels are ‘specialist’ butterflies. Specialists are more likely to be found intermittently, in few places, have particular habitat requirements, a limited number of food plants and are sometimes reliant on attendant ants. Specialists are not necessarily endangered but they are less common, more vulnerable to extinction and more likely to be an indicator of biodiversity conservation success and the state of the environment than ‘generalists’ like the common brown.

How do we know this? Through painstaking research, expert knowledge and long-term monitoring by trained volunteers, all summarised in biodiversity accounts for butterflies for the Australian Capital Territory. For other types of animals, for example birds and mammals, we have much research and knowledge but very little monitoring and no accounts, just a five-yearly State of the Environment Report with a story of woe.

To have any chance of successfully implementing the “Nature Positive Planannounced by the Commonwealth Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek last December, then we are going to need more monitoring and reporting. This will be especially important for the planned “Nature Repair Markets”.

Biodiversity accounting

Biodiversity accounting provides a framework for integrating environmental and economic information. This accounting is part of the United Nation’s System of Environmental Economic Accounting, which has in theory been adopted by Australia’s governments, but has so far been under-resourced and provided underwhelming results.

Few countries have produced biodiversity accounts, partly a function of the newness of the accounts (the UN only adopted the SEEA Ecosystem Accounting in 2021) but also because of a lack of data. Without data you cannot make accounts. Because of this, the biodiversity accounts to date have used what data are available, which is on endangered species, rather than what is needed. Which means tallying the number of endangered species and putting this into a table. This does not tell you anything that you don’t already know. What we need to know is how, why, when and where things are changing. This requires monitoring and expert knowledge.

You would think that endangered species would be regularly monitored, and conservation actions recorded to figure out which conservation measures were giving the biggest conservation bang for the very limited conservation bucks. Sadly, this has not happened, as found in the Samuel Review.

Professor Graeme Samuel saw the potential for accounting, recommending accounts be produced and now the government has committed to their preparation in the Nature Positive Plan to “help us value nature”. The plan also commits to the “Better Use of Environment Data”. But it doesn’t commit to gathering more data: the focus is on artificial intelligence and remote sensing. Unfortunately, we cannot spot and identify butterflies from outer space, so we will have to keep the boots on the ground.

Butterfly values

Common browns, moonlight jewels, scarlet jezebels and golden ant-blues all conjure notions of value. They are of course all beautiful. Beyond this, they each occupy a different ecological niche and have different traits that make them more or less vulnerable to extinction.

As for value, we have already introduced the common brown and moonlight jewel.

The scarlet jezebel occasionally flies to the Australia Capital Territory and when it does it can be found in different places, but it does not breed. A heart breaker, but occurrence of this species probably tells us little about the state of the environment. This contrasts starkly with the golden ant-blue which is resident and breeds in the region, found only in a few places and is suspected to eat ant larvae. Like the moonlight jewel, a real treasure.

These butterflies and other breeding specialists can tell you a lot about the health of the ecosystems. This is because butterflies are excellent indicators of ecological condition as they respond quickly to change, are short lived, and many are specialists. They are also relatively easy to identify.

What about the economics?

If we follow Economics 101, the scarcer the commodity, the more valuable they become. Bad news for common browns. Worse, it would be possible for a specialist species like the moonlight jewel to increase in economic value due to declining abundance and listing as endangered. Not quite the outcome we want from biodiversity markets.

And how would we value the Bogong moth? This species is of great cultural significant to First Nations peoples. Once vast numbers flew by Canberra and the lights of Parliament House had to be switched off so as not to interfere with their migration to the Snowy Mountains. Their numbers crashed, but are beginning to recover, although no-one is sure why. They are culturally important and are internationally listed as endangered by the IUCN Red List, but not under Australian law. 

Accounting and accountability

For the Nature Positive Plan to work and for us to build a capacity to keep our precious species, we need to have information and hold governments accountable. Ecosystem accounting provides the numbers, but for accounting to be possible it needs biodiversity monitoring. At present we do not have this for most species, and the endangered species lists highlight our failure to protect biodiversity and are a poor reflection of value.

If we are to be ‘nature positive’ then we need accounts to reflect the different values and needs of common browns, moonlight jewels, scarlet jezebels and golden ant-blues and all of the other species that are not on the endangered species list, so that they stay off the list, and the success of any conservation policy or plan can be judged.

Banner image: The narcissus jewel (Hypochrysops narcissus), a thing of beauty currently sitting outside our economic values system. (Image by Suzi Bond.)

*Dr Suzi Bond works at the Australian Bureau of Statistics where she is a specialist in biodiversity accounting, and is also an honorary member of the Australian National Insect Collection at CSIRO, an honorary senior lecturer at the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU, and a butterfly moderator for citizen science platforms Canberra Nature Map and Butterflies Australia. Suzi published the first field guide to the butterflies of the ACT in 2016, was a co-author on the first book published on ACT moths in 2022 and leads an ongoing butterfly monitoring project in collaboration with citizen scientists.

*Michael Vardon is the Associate Professor of Environmental Accounting at the Fenner School of Environment and Society (Australian National University). He has assisted more than 30 countries with development and implementation of the System of Environmental-Economic Accounting and is the former Director of the Centre of Environment and Energy Statistics at the Australian Bureau of Statistics. He has been an advisor to the World Bank and United Nations on accounting https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/vardon-mj

The golden ant-blue butterfly (Acrodipsas aurata) is resident and breeds in the Canberra region, found only in a few places and is suspected to eat ant larvae. (Image by Suzi Bond.)

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  1. Dbytes #559 (10 February 2023) | Dbytes - […] Maybe environmental accounts can help here, and butterflies are a great example demonstrating how.https://sustainabilitybites.home.blog/2023/02/09/from-moonlight-jewels-to-common-browns-what-do-butt…-~<>~-3. Vale Will SteffenIn memory of…

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