By David Salt
Sad about the extinction crisis rolling out around the world? Don’t be, the Australian Government has figured out an excellent way for you to wash away your woes. Simply go out and discover a few new species to fill the void. It’s a well proven technique to grab a few headlines, give the impression the government cares and, best of all, hardly costs a thing.
And here’s the latest proof. This month, an 11-day expedition to discover new species in Australia’s Alpine region has uncovered three new species of spider previously unknown to science! How great is that!
But it gets even better, one of the new spiders is a “ferocious nocturnal mini-hunter that impersonates a tree branch during the day to hide from predators.”
Now, forget the fact that Australia’s alpine region is reeling under multiple assaults of catastrophic wildfires, outbreaks of bark beetles decimating the iconic snow gum and a raft of other disturbances connected to climate change (and we’re not going to even mention the self-inflicted disaster of exploding numbers of wild feral horses destroying our alpine water catchments); the thing to keep in mind here is that we have discovered three new species of spider.
The blitz on biodiversity
The program in which these new species were found is called Bush Blitz. It’s a partnership between the Australian Government through Parks Australia, BHP and Earthwatch Australia. It involves scientists, teachers and citizen scientists heading out into the ‘bush’ to discover new species and spread the word on nature.
Our environment minister was full of praise for the outcomes of this latest adventure.
“The discovery of three new spiders in the Australian alps is fantastic,” she told the media. “Around three-quarters of Australia’s biodiversity is still waiting to be discovered by science. Programs like Bush Blitz are giving us a deeper understanding of Australian habitats so that we can make nature positive decisions for the future.”
Forgive my cynicism, but crowing about the discovery of three new spiders from a region where habitats are in steep (and likely mortal) decline without even acknowledging the massive challenges facing this area is disingenuous if not outright hypocritical.
Please minister, spell out how this deeper understanding you’ve acquired is helping you make ‘nature positive’ decisions? Because, so far, as demonstrated by our collapsing biodiversity, Australian governments of all stripes are only making ‘nature negative’ decisions when it comes to balancing economic development against biodiversity conservation.
Of course, it’s not only Australia letting down Mother Nature here. It’s a global problem.
Most nations around the world eagerly signed up to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) way back in 1992 (at the Rio Earth Summit), pledging to slow down and reverse rates of biodiversity decline. Ten years later (at the next Earth Summit in Johannesburg), these same nations (of which Australia is one) confirmed their commitment and even signed up to a target of seeing measurable improvement at a national and regional level by the year 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity.
2010 comes around and all signatories to the CBD were found to have comprehensively failed at meeting any of the targets they had signed up to. What’s more, the Global Biodiversity Outlook released in 2010 revealed rates of biodiversity loss were accelerating.
Consequently, a new list of more nuanced targets (the Aichi Targets) were drawn up for 2020 and (no surprises here) these too were comprehensively missed by all signatory nations.
A new list of CBD targets was released a few days before Xmas. Maybe you missed the announcement. The Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, as it’s called, includes four goals and 23 targets to be achieved by 2030. To tell you the truth, I don’t know anyone who holds out hope that these targets mean anything anymore. Default on them once is bad enough, twice is chronic and who cares what happens after that.
The line in the sand
I remember writing about 2010, the International Year of Biodiversity, back in 2007. Everyone was calling it a line in the sand in the fight for biodiversity. I thought Australia was taking it seriously. I thought there would at the very least be some successful stories where some nations managed to demonstrate it was possible to protect biodiversity while sustaining economic prosperity.
But I was wrong; comprehensively wrong. Everyone failed everywhere.
But what really stuck in my craw when the score cards came in for the Global Biodiversity Outlook in 2010, was Australia’s response? Did we acknowledge our failure and promise to redouble our efforts (and resource allocation) to do better in future? No, we set up a new national program to find new undescribed species. Can you guess what it was called? That’s right, Bush Blitz!
It was only supposed to run for three years but the political imperative of having something positive to announce in the face of unremitting failure (and given the ongoing decimation of resources for biodiversity conservation), there was strong reasons to keep in going.
And so it is, in the midst of an unravelling biodiversity catastrophe, we’re still seeing announcements from the minister on how wonderful it is that, thanks to Bush Blitz (and its wonderful partner, BHP) we’re still able to discover fascinating and quirky new species. The fact that these new species probably haven’t got much time left on this planet is by the by.
Cheap as chips
And discovering new species is so much cheaper than stopping the development of new fossil fuel projects or passing effective regulation on land clearing. Paying the expenses of a few taxonomists and a group of teachers for a week’s camping out in the bush to find new species is as cheap as chips by comparison.
Indeed, as a colleague pointed out to me when I shared this story with him, it could be even cheaper. He’s just identified 22 new species of mite just by going back through the collection at the Australian National Insect Collection and uncovering evidence there’s a greater diversity in existing records than previously appreciated. How much is his work costing the tax payer? Nothing, he’s retired and the work is voluntary!
So, next time you feel a planet-sized hole opening up in your soul as you hear the latest extinction reports; think of Bush Blitz*, they’ve just discovered three new spiders in the alps.
*I really need to underline that there’s nothing wrong with Bush Blitz itself or the quest to discover new species. This is important and worthy work. It just shouldn’t be a cloak for turning your back on the growing plight faced by so many species and ecosystems.