Researchers aim to use artificial intelligence to save endangered B.C. killer whales

Researchers are aiming to “teach” a computer to recognize the sounds of resident killer whales in order to develop a warning system for preventing ships from fatally striking endangered
orcas off British Columbia’s coast.

Steven Bergner, a computing science research associate at Simon Fraser University’s Big Data Hub, said he is collecting and managing a database of sounds picked up 24 hours a day by a network of hydrophones in the Salish Sea.

Orca who carried dead calf in B.C. waters gives birth again

Orca who carried dead calf in B.C. waters gives birth again – Sep 7, 2020

Marine biologists will identify the sounds of different species of whales, including humpbacks and transients, and differentiate the acoustics from other noise such as waves and boats, he said.

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Machine learning or artificial intelligence would help detect the presence of orcas through patterns in the data.

“That (information) goes through another system that then decides whether there should be a warning that ultimately reaches the vessel pilots,” Bergner said.

Read more:
‘Completely oblivious’: Video catches boat speeding through orca pod near Vancouver

The goal is to detect whale calls automatically and send real-time alerts to ships to slow down or change course hours before orcas may be in their path and before boaters might observe them
heading for trouble, he said.

Orcas along the West Coast are categorized into three families known as the J, K and L pods, each of which has its own dialect and calls that differ from the others.

Bergner is collaborating with colleagues from Dalhousie University in Halifax and at Carleton University in Ottawa to develop the machine-learning tools. Citizen scientists and the Orcasound project are also contributing research.

Click to play video 'Orca’s health causing concerns'

Orca’s health causing concerns

Orca’s health causing concerns – Aug 25, 2020

The project has received $568,000 in funding from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

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The program builds on work already underway by Ruth Joy, a statistical ecologist at Simon Fraser University’s School of Environmental Science who is leading two orca projects expected to be completed by March 2022.

Joy said the hydrophone nodes located adjacent to shipping lanes in the Salish Sea would collect information to help predict the direction orcas are most likely to travel based on their typical patterns.

“This will give sort of a projection for up to three or four hours,” she said of the advance warning to ship pilots to stay clear of the orcas.

Read more:
New rules for B.C. boaters to help protect southern resident killer whales

“Even losing a single whale is really unconscionable. At this point, we’ve only got 74 of them left.” she said. “Certainly we don’t want the shipping lanes to become a place where killer whales are at risk.”

It’s hard to know how many orcas have been struck by vessels, Joy said, recounting the death of one of the cetaceans that washed up on the shores of the Sunshine Coast in 2017.

“The necropsy suggested it had died from blunt force trauma,” she said. “We don’t know what hit it, whether it was a high-speed recreational boat or a ferry or a commercial vessel or something else.

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“You don’t necessarily find them when they’re hit, they just kind of disappear. With only a small fraction of them do you ever get the carcass to confirm what actually caused the death.”

Click to play video 'Quieter oceans a boon to whale researchers and orcas'

Quieter oceans a boon to whale researchers and orcas

Quieter oceans a boon to whale researchers and orcas – May 6, 2020

The project’s findings will be shared with the research community to potentially save different populations of whales elsewhere, Joy said of the artificial intelligence tools being developed.

Her research led the Port of Vancouver’s Enhancing Cetacean Habitat and Observation program to start an initiative in 2016 to reduce underwater noise in key feeding areas for southern resident killer whales.

Read more:
Ships must keep 400 metres away as part of new rules to protect killer whales on B.C. coast

Between June and October, tugboat operators have been asked to slow down once southern resident killer whales are confirmed to be present as part of a collaborative effort with the commercial shipping industry.

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Joy said that while orcas typically head south for the winter, members of the J and K pods were spotted in the Salish Sea in B.C. earlier this month before they travelled to the Puget Sound area of Seattle.

© 2020 The Canadian Press

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Motion-sensor cameras track endangered long-footed potoroo after Victorian bushfires

Wildlife researchers on the hunt for the elusive long-footed potoroo in north-eastern Victoria are hoping motion-sensor cameras will indicate how last summer’s bushfires have affected the endangered species.

Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning biodiversity officer Elizabeth Wemyss said over time bushfires, climate change and introduced predators had taken a toll on the marsupial in the wild.

“These guys are like needles in the haystack,” she said.

The marsupials can only be found in pockets of north-east Victoria, far-east Gippsland and south-east New South Wales but authorities fear their habitat may have been further reduced by the bushfires earlier this year.

Eight people spent five days installing 120 motion-sensor cameras in the Ovens Valley.(Supplied: DELWP Hume)

‘Months of preparation’

Over the next three weeks, 120 motion-sensor cameras set up in the Ovens Valley will attempt to record potoroo activity.

Bait stations filled with peanut butter, golden syrup, oats and truffle oil will be put near the cameras to attract the marsupials.

Ms Wemyss said she was hoping the cameras would capture “heaps of them”.

“For us to go out on the field trip for five days, there was months of preparation of deciding where to put the cameras, buying the cameras, setting the cameras up,” she said.

“They’re triggered by heat or movement and then an infrared flash takes a photo so it doesn’t startle the animal.

“But if you haven’t cleared enough vegetation around the camera, one bit of moving grass might trigger it 100,000 times so the camera is going to run out of batteries.”

A woman sorts through dozens of cameras on a table with forest in the background.
DELWP worked with the Taungurung Land and Waters Corporation and Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research on this project.(Supplied: DELWP Hume.)

Most people ‘don’t seem to know’

Ms Wemyss said the plight of the long-footed potoroo was not widely known.

“Everyone seems to know about pandas and tigers and how endangered they are and how special they are,” she said.

The Victorian Government allocated $22.5 million to the Bushfire Biodiversity Response and Recovery Program, which is funding this project, after reporting 170 rare or threatened species in the state had lost more than 50 per cent of their habitats due to the bushfires.

“It’s really important that we get out and do these projects because we’re filling in those information gaps that we just don’t know about,” Ms Wemyss said.

“We can then put that information into more research and management actions to better look after these species now and into the future.”

The department is working with the Taungurung Land and Waters Corporation and Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research on the project.

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Tusks and crocodile blood seized at UK borders in crackdown on endangered animal products | UK News

Crocodile blood and elephant tusks are among thousands of endangered animal products seized in a month-long operation at UK ports and airports.

Specially-trained UK Border Force officers took part in the international drive against wildlife criminals, who are responsible for a huge increase in the trade in rare animal and plant items.

The operation, led by Interpol and the World Customs Organisation, specifically focussed on the activities of criminal gangs in more than 100 countries, who feed off organised wildlife trafficking.

An elephant tusk with wall mount

As part of that effort, Border Force officers intensified their operations at sea ports and airports, making 178 separate seizures of items totalling thousands of products, banned under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

The seizures included elephant tusks and other ivory goods, live corals and reptile skin products and bottles containing crocodile blood.

The reptile blood products are increasingly popular in Thailand and a number of other countries in the Far East, where some believe they are effective in preventing cancer.

Officers also seized a number of rare cactus plants. The cacti astrophytum asterias plants are native to a small number of states in the US and Mexico.

Border Force officials unwrapping cacti
Border Force officials unwrapping cacti

They are classed in the highest category of protected plant species and described as critically imperilled.

But despite this protection, illegal collection continues to threaten the future of this rare cactus.

Other items seized at the UK border included queen conch pearl, among the rarest type of pearl in the world. High-quality specimens can fetch up to £15,000 per carat.

Despite a UK ban on the trade in ivory, Border Force agents still regularly recover ivory products at Britain’s ports and airports.

Astrophytum asterias cacti are endangered
Astrophytum asterias cacti are endangered

Elephant tusks, attached to wall mounting chains, were among the ivory products found during this latest operation.

The European Union has come under increasing pressure to follow the example of the UK and US in banning the trade in ivory products.

The international trade in those products was outlawed 30 years ago, but trade in antique ivory and shipments of personal effects for non-commercial purposes are still allowed and this loophole is being exploited by some traders within the EU.

A queen conch pearl
A queen conch pearl

Conservationists have accused the EU of helping fuel the trade, which has seen a rise in elephant poaching in parts of Africa over the past decade, with around 20,000 elephants killed each year for their ivory.

Home Office Minister Chris Philip said the UK was proud to play a part in the latest international efforts to combat wildlife crime.

“The trade in endangered species is driven by organised crime groups and the movement of banned animal products is key to how they operate,” he said.

“This is why Border Force’s specialist officers will continue their vital work at the border to prevent the importation and exportation of endangered animals and plants, as well as working alongside enforcement partners such as the National Wildlife Crime Unit, and police from across the UK to eradicate this ruthless and exploitative trade.”

Codenamed Operation Thunder, the international drive against the trade in endangered animal and plant products led to the worldwide seizure of 1.3 tonnes of ivory, more than one tonne of pangolin scales, 1,400 live turtles and 1,800 reptiles.

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Endangered species – Can Tata Sons regain its footing? | Business

IN THE PANICKY initial days of India’s covid-19 lockdown, the country could count on one venerable institution. Tata, a 152-year-old conglomerate, bought millions of dollars’ worth of medical supplies for clinics and hospitals. Its shut businesses did not lay off a single worker. A new subsidiary was conjured up to develop a one-hour coronavirus test using gene-editing technology, which was approved last month. Each of these was a feat in its own right. Collectively, they look remarkable.

That is what Indians have come to expect from Tata since its founding in 1868. The group’s holding company, Tata Sons, and the seven charities which today own 66% of its shares, have been a pillar of India’s philanthropy, donating $156m last financial year, as well as its industry. The group thrived by helping India through its challenges, accruing businesses as it went.

Legend has it that Jamsetji Tata, the group’s progenitor, who died in 1904, built the magnificent Taj Mahal hotel after being denied a room at one of Bombay’s existing establishments because he was an Indian, not a European. Today Indian Hotels, which owns the Taj Mahal, is South Asia’s biggest chain. Less apocryphally, Tata Power and Tata Steel were founded to cope with India’s chronic electricity shortages and the paucity of heavy industry. It is a similar story for Tata Chemicals (from soda ash to hybrid seeds), Tata Motors (cars and lorries) and Tata Consumer Products (tea to turmeric). Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), India’s leading information-technology firm, was born in 1968 to manage payroll and inventory for Tata’s burgeoning portfolio of businesses.

The Tata name thus pervades all aspects of Indian life. An outside appraisal cited by Tata Sons values the brand, for the use of which the parent charges affiliates a royalty, at $20bn. That makes it Tata Sons’ second-most-valuable asset behind only its $89bn stake in TCS. But the lattice of business, do-goodery and trust, all wrapped up in a beloved brand, now faces problems of its own, from inside its corporate structure and from stiffer competition beyond it.

Start with the structure. Because for much of its history capital was in short supply in India, Tata Sons holds only partial stakes in big affiliates. In the 1980s the parent company reportedly let executives create an affiliate, Titan, to take on the state wristwatch monopoly on the condition that they could find funding themselves (which they did). During another scramble for money in the volatile 1920s the roots were planted for what has turned into the group’s biggest headache of late.

The details are fuzzy. But a loan secured at the time has evolved into an equity stake held by the Shapoorji Pallonji Group—a name that, like Tata’s, resonates in India Inc. SP Group, as it is known for short, built many of Mumbai’s landmark buildings, including the central railway station and the old reserve (central) bank. Its controlling Mistry family is, like the Tatas, drawn from old Bombay’s Parsi elite. Close ties between the clans (including by marriage) meant that when a Tata wanted to offload a stake, the Mistrys were seen as friendly buyers. Today SP Group holds 18.4% of Tata Sons.

In 2012 Ratan Tata, the current patriarch, stepped down as chairman of Tata Sons. He installed Cyrus Mistry, who then headed SP Group, as his successor. Mr Tata owed the Mistrys a debt of gratitude from early in his tenure, when Mistry money helped ward off hostile bidders for Tata businesses as India opened up its economy in the 1990s, after the interventionist decades of the Licence Raj. But he left behind a mixed legacy, having used readier access to capital in the roaring 2000s, when India’s economy looked on course for China-like growth, to bankroll a shopping spree. In 2007 he bought Britain’s Corus Steel for $12bn. A year later he paid $2.3bn for Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), an iconic British carmaker. He splurged millions on telecoms networks, power generation and chic hotels, including the Pierre in New York.

Many deals proved to be duds. Tata Steel is losing money. JLR has struggled to carve out a niche in the premium car market. A vast coal-fired power project in the state of Gujarat, begun in 2006 with government encouragement, has generated mostly losses. All this has fuelled a bonfire of value destruction. Since 2007 the market capitalisation of Tata Steel (into which Corus was folded) has gone from $14.5bn to $5.4bn; Tata Motors has declined from $7.3bn to $5.7bn; Tata Power from $7.4bn to $2.3bn; and Indian Hotels from $2.4 to $1.5bn. Today nearly 90% of Tata Sons’ worth is tied up in its lucrative stake in TCS, India’s second-most-valuable company (see chart 1).

In 2016 Mr Mistry was ousted as chairman, apparently at the urging of Mr Tata, who did not think he was doing a good job. The Mumbai rumour mill has it that the two fell out because Mr Tata declined to loosen his grip through the controlling trusts. (Mr Tata’s views on this matter are not known.) Whoever is right, Tata Sons handed the top job to Natarajan Chandrasekaran, TCS’s able boss, to right the ship. Mr Chandrasekaran continued Mr Mistry’s clean-up, writing off investments in a telecoms operation, cutting steel capacity, recapitalising subsidiaries and selling some loss-making assets, including a chain of car dealerships.

That is not the end of it for Mr Chandrasekaran. Out of Tata Sons’ 15 big publicly listed affiliates, only five have returns on capital of over 10%. The debts of four subsidiaries, including Tata Motors and Tata Steel, exceed their equity—by more than twice in the case of Tata Power (see chart 2). Although Tata Sons holds minority stakes in many divisions, markets and bankers appear to assume that it stands entirely behind all its operating companies, in effect taking on full risk for partial reward.

Even if Mr Chandrasekaran’s restructuring plan succeeds, another problem looms in the form of increased competition. Tata’s corporate structure makes it hard for its various arms to collaborate—by linking its hotels, airlines (Tata Sons holds stakes in two) and a coffee-shop joint-venture with Starbucks, say. That could increase efficiency and help fend off global rivals that offer appealing products. The alternative to the Taj Mahal is no longer some fusty Mumbai lodge but the Four Seasons. Tata Motors must take on not just the rickety Hindustan Ambassador but BMW.

In more ordinary times, Tata could tap a reservoir of goodwill, plus returns from TCS, to tackle these challenges patiently. But India’s growing financial strains, exacerbated by covid-19, have opened up fissures. SP Group, whose real-estate investments have been particularly hard-hit, is struggling to roll over debts. A default on its obligations to a small listed subsidiary, Sterling and Wilson Solar, raised concerns about SP Group’s overall debt, estimated at $4.1bn. In response to the cash crunch it reached an agreement with Brookfield, a Canadian private-equity firm, for capital. Collateral included the Mistrys’ shares in Tata Sons. Tata Sons sued to block the transaction, arguing it was not permitted under the shareholding agreements. India’s Supreme Court has suspended the deal until a hearing on October 28th.

Tata’s options are unappealing. SP Group has offered to take direct stakes in subsidiaries in proportion to its overall holdings. But that would dilute Tata Sons’ stakes just as Mr Chandrasekaran is trying to consolidate control by increasing holdings. For the same reason he is reluctant to buy the SP stake outright with money from a sale of assets—the price of which would anyway be depressed by the downturn. Tata Sons’ 30-odd direct holdings, including a financial-services arm, a home-builder and a biotech firm, are worth perhaps $6bn all told. But most are tricky to value at the best of times—which these are not. And Mr Chandrasekaran is understandably loth to reduce its ownership of TCS, and the accompanying juicy dividend.

A third option is to raise fresh capital. For all its problems, Tata’s portfolio of assets may look attractive to a private-equity giant or a sovereign-wealth fund. But outside investors may demand things unbecoming of Tata Sons, like redundancies or divestments. It may be the price for preserving an Indian icon.

This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Endangered species”

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Feral cats threatening endangered species on Kangaroo Island after bushfires

Kangaroo Island’s endangered species are “looking at extinction” after the deadly summer bushfires unless more is done to eradicate feral cats which are preying on those that survived, conservationists warn.

For more than 20 years, Barry Green — known as the “KI cat man” — has made it his mission to rid the island of feral cats.

He has trapped, killed and skinned about 1,500 feral cats turning their skin into stubby holders, bags and other quirky household items which he sells.

He keeps a record in his notebook of each cat he has killed and turned his American River home into a museum-like shrine to raise awareness about feral cats.

“I’ve spent a lot of money chasing cats around the island,” Mr Green said.

The Kangaroo Island Dunnart is one of many endangered species at risk from feral cats.(Supplied)

Mr Green has been widely recognised for his two decades of conservation work, including by Natural Resources Kangaroo Island, as the island’s feral cats maim threatened species including the Kangaroo Island dunnart, echidna and bandicoot.

They also cause about $2 million worth of damage to the sheep industry each year.

But he admits he is slowing down and concedes eradicating feral cats was getting harder after recent bushfires.

“They’re breeding faster than they’re dying off,” he said.

“Once bush starts to grow back again, and it has already, they’ll start moving back and start spreading out so I guess now’s the time to really concentrate.”

A man wearing a feral cat fur hat with a white beard stares blankly down the camera
Barry Green has led the fight against feral cats on Kangaroo Island for years, but says he doesn’t hate all cats – only the feral ones.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Protecting the native stronghold

Kangaroo Island is one of five islands in Australia identified by the Federal Government to become feral cat free.

A government-funded feral cat eradication program has been underway since 2015 with the island meant to be free of feral cats by 2030.

But the project leader at Natural Resources KI, Dr James Smith, said he had his “fingers crossed” they would deliver on that plan.

A road winding between fire-damaged land and trees
The regrowth of bushfire-ravaged parts of Kangaroo Island is welcome for locals and also feral cats, who can use growth to hide.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

So far, eradication work has taken place on a small pocket on the Dudley Peninsula, on the island’s east.

“There’s been a lot of work done establishing some background information, how many cats there are, what cats do in different landscapes … and what’s the best way to trap them.

“We’ve now removed cats from about 28 square kilometres and we’re slowly expanding that.

“We really need to make sure that we’ve learned all our lessons and we get it right on the Dudley; the rest of the island is about 10 times that size so we’ve just got to take our time and make sure we get it right.”

Fence posts without wire trail off into the distance on a green hill toward a blue lake
A cat barrier-fence being built on the east of Kangaroo Island is behind schedule.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

Part of the work involved building a cat barrier-fence which was meant to be finished in June but Dr Smith said was still some months off being completed.

“There’s been lots of delays, lots of negotiations and renegotiations not only with landholders but also with contractors, to get things right it just takes a long time.”

Locals tired of waiting

Heritage landowner Lara Tilbrook is fed up of waiting and feared it was all too little, too late.

There is currently no feral cat eradication work being done on the western end of the island — an area hit hard by bushfires in January, and where many threatened species, including the dunnart and echidna, live.

“I feel like we’ve just been going around in circles for years now,” Ms Tilbrook said.

“Kangaroo Island is a stronghold for threatened species nationally, not just in this state, obviously they’re predating on the native animals and really putting huge pressure on threatened species.

A woman stands outside wearing a broad-brim hat looking blankly past the camera in front of a yellow tree
Kangaroo Island local Lara Tilbrook is worried that the efforts to eradicate feral cats has come too late for many threatened species.(ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)

“We’re just looking at extinction, and extinction is forever.”

Ms Tilbrook, who owns 400 acres of heritage bushland on the north-west end of Kangaroo Island, hired a drone and shooter after the summer bushfires to hunt the feral cats on her and her neighbour’s property.

“After the fires I felt so sad and It was despair that brought me to trial the drones and work with a team to see if we could use the infrared, the thermal drone imaging, to hunt out the cats and really focus in and eradicate that way,” she said.

“We need to use multiple tools to ensure feral cats are eradicated from Kangaroo Island forever.”

Dr Smith it was hard to tell how if cat numbers had been reduced after the fire but there was work being done to try and assess that.

The island’s mayor, Michael Pengilly, said he was “critical of the speed of the program” but still held out hope feral cats could be eradicated from the island if enough work was done.

“There’s just been too much bureaucracy and not enough things happening.

“This is an enormously expensive program, it’s a prototype and we hope it works, it needs to work.”

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Endangered species: Canadian small oil and gas companies under pressure to merge or die

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The same issue has not plagued the larger companies in the Canadian oilpatch, with Suncor Energy Inc., Canadian Natural Resources Ltd., Cenovus Energy Inc. and Husky Energy Inc. tapping the debt market with little trouble this year, Chari said.

It’s the smaller producers that are feeling the heat from impatient bankers and financiers.

“In terms of returns for both equity and debt-holders from energy companies has been so poor for a number of years that the market doesn’t necessarily have the confidence that these companies will be good stewards of their capital,” Chari said.

It’s the smaller producers that are feeling the heat from impatient bankers and financiers

As creditors’ patience runs out, a handful of opportunistic acquirers, such as Waterous, are buying up assets at bargain basement valuations.

“Consolidation has never been more urgently needed than right now,” Waterous said in a recent interview, noting that small energy companies have been shut out of both debt and equity markets and without access to capital, they are “effectively orphaned businesses.”

“These orphaned businesses need to come together,” he said. “We’ve been very aggressive in doing this.”

Waterous, who divides his time between Banff and Calgary, has been advising energy firms on deals for decades, with his own advisory called Waterous & Co. beginning in 1991. In 2005 he sold the firm to Scotiabank to create Scotia Waterous. He left Scotia in 2017 to set up the private equity Waterous Energy Fund. And after years of watching investments in the Canadian energy sector decline, he says there are major opportunities for consolidation.

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Endangered bee doesn’t warrant ‘critical habitat’

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What this critically endangered bird tells us about Australia’s failing environment protection laws

When Sean Dooley started birdwatching as a kid in the 80s the swift parrot was already rare.

“It’s a beautiful bird. I remember around that time it was said that there were maybe 8,000,” he says.

He says there now could be as few as 1,000 left in the wild.

It’s classed as “critically endangered” — one step from extinction.

An independent review released last month found Australia’s environment is getting worse under the laws designed to protect it.

Mr Dooley, from conservation group BirdLife Australia, considers the swift parrot one of the victims of the laws.

‘Death by a thousand cuts’

The swift parrot breeds in Tasmania then migrates north in search of ironbark forests.(Supplied: Chris Tzaros)

Mr Dooley says the swift parrot is a “tricky devil to preserve”.

They migrate from Tasmania to Victoria and feed on the eucalypt blossoms of blue gum trees. In drought years, when the trees don’t flower, the parrots will head as far as coastal or northern New South Wales and even to Queensland.

He says that range makes them vulnerable to the flaws in the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

“The way [the Act] currently works is they don’t really take into consideration cumulative impacts,” he tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision.

Sean Dooley with binoculars in hand stands in front of a yellow-flowering wattle tree
Mr Dooley says the swift parrot is a “tricky devil to preserve”.(Supplied)

But he says it all adds up.

“You see a bit of bush being cleared here, it doesn’t meet the criteria of having a significant impact, and a housing development there, or some logging in another site, and the lights go out for that bird across the landscape,” he says.

“Each incident isn’t deemed serious enough, and so the swift parrot has been declining throughout the period of the EPBC Act.”

Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University, agrees that the Act tends to assess threats to a species in a vacuum.

“It’s the classic death by a thousand cuts. You could lose the species because each of those threats have been assessed independently rather than at the same time.”

Young swift parrot.
A young swift parrot, a species classified as “critically endangered”.(Supplied: Dr Dejan Stojanovic/ANU)

Mr Dooley says the Act should also restrict logging of the swift parrot’s habitat, but instead other agreements between state and federal governments can take precedence.

“As long as the states say that they are considering the impact of an endangered species like the swift parrot, then there is literally nothing that the EPBC Act can do to intervene.”

‘A state of steady decline’

When the laws were passed by the Howard Government in 1999, not all environmental groups were happy — but for others, it was better than nothing.

James Pittock, an environmental scientist at Australian National University, says after decades of “environmental wars” many wanted the Commonwealth to step in and regulate logging, but it was something neither side of politics would sign up to.

“My view and the view of other groups was that it would be very regrettable if logging operations weren’t regulated, but if we got an improvement by having the other 90 per cent or more of the country better protected, then that was a compromise worth accepting in the interim.”

Ten years later the first independent assessment of the Act was scathing.

Rachel Walmsley from the NGO the Environmental Defenders Office says the review — which is required every decade under the law — actually recommended the EPBC be repealed and rewritten.

“The 71 recommendations that the Hawke review came up with, unfortunately, never really saw the light of day. They have languished on a dusty departmental shelf.”

She says the law is fundamentally flawed.

“We have an Act that doesn’t prevent extinction, even though that is the primary national Act to conserve our unique biodiversity,” Ms Walmsley says.

“There have been about 6,500 projects referred under the Act in 20 years, but there has only ever been a handful of refusals, and the Act has been really ineffective in actually delivering environmental outcomes.”

Now, 10 more years on, another review is in.

Professor Graeme Samuel’s interim report has found the laws are ineffective, complex, costly to business and provide little benefit to the environment.

“We are seeing our environment in a state of steady decline over the 20 years since the Act has been in operation,” Professor Samuel says.

“It not only doesn’t achieve its environmental outcomes, but it impedes appropriate, and I mean appropriate, business development.”

Section of logged forest near Bendoc in East Gippsland
A section of logged forest near Bendoc in East Gippsland, Victoria.(ABC News: Michael Slezak)

Where we’re at now

Professor Hughes says Australia’s made some records we shouldn’t be proud of.

“Australia currently has the worst rate of mammal extinction anywhere in the world,” she says.

“A couple of years ago, WWF International put out a report that listed the worst deforestation hotspots in the world. I think there were 11. Australia was the only developed country on that list.”

Australia’s also the first country to see a mammal become extinct due to climate change.

University of Queensland environmental scientist Martine Maron says the Bramble Cay melomys was lost to storm surges and sea level rise on the small Great Barrier Reef island where it lived.

Bramble Cay melomys
The Bramble Cay melomys has been declared extinct.(Supplied)

The Christmas Island pipistrelle, a small insect-eating bat, and the Christmas Island forest skink have also disappeared.

“We knew they were in trouble but we didn’t act in time, and so it’s too late for them,” she says.

“But there are so many more species that are really on the brink that we can still act for and we need coordinated national action to achieve.”

Gump, a female Christmas Island forest skink.
The last of her kind, this Christmas Island forest skink, named Gump, died in 2014.(Supplied by Director of National Parks)

Professor Maron says island species are especially vulnerable.

“The species that are in trouble on the mainland have been able to hang on longer, but for how much longer is the question,” she says

“Unfortunately every tree we put back, every bit of habitat we restore … is undone many times over by land clearing, by ongoing loss of habitat, and those of the sorts of situations that the Act has simply not been able to get a handle on.”

Other countries, it seems, have done better.

The Wilderness Society’s Suzanne Milthorpe says the United States’ Endangered Species Act has been remarkably successful, compared to Australia’s efforts.

“Ninety per cent of species are meeting their recovery milestones … and it is estimated that 227 extinctions have been prevented, which is incredible, compared with Australia where you’ve only really got one or two animals that have ever come off the EPBC because they’ve been recovered by conservation action.”

She says the US law has strong safeguards, and the ability for communities to force the government to the table “and actually say to them we’re going to take you to court to make sure you do your job”.

“They’ve [also] got this really strong threshold that basically says once a species is endangered, you can’t harm it and you can’t harm its habitat or the places that it needs to survive, to breed, to feed, to thrive,” she says.

“And importantly they define its habitat as not only the place that it needs to live now, but also the habitat that it needs to recover.”

Doing the work

Professor Hughes says one area where the laws fail is actually ensuring the work to save the species gets done.

She says when a species is listed as threatened a recovery plan is supposed to be written.

“What has happened is that we have many, many species and communities listed that don’t have plans written at all.”


But she says even when there is a recovery plan, there’s then no obligation for it to be funded.

“The Act looks after the first part of the process, but it doesn’t actually oblige the government to mandate the actions and to resource them effectively to mean that the species actually recovers,” she says,

“Over the years, especially over the last decade, the amount of real dollars spent on saving threatened species in particular and environmental protection more generally has continued to decline.”

Glossy Black Cockatoo pair
A recovery plan saw Kangaroo Island’s glossy black cockatoo bounce back, though recent fires have posed a threat.(ABC News)

Mr Dooley says there have been instances where recovery plans have saved threatened species.

He says the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo and the Norfolk Island green parrot both bounced back — but conservationists have had to fight for funding when the money dried up.

“We know that conservation actions work, but they have to be resourced, they have to be based on good data, based on good monitoring, and we just don’t even get that for most of our threatened species,” he says.

“Currently of the 71 threatened birds on the EPBC Act, only six of them have up-to-date recovery plans that are resourced.”

The future

The Government is now considering the Samuel review interim report, but has already ruled out the recommendation for a “strong independent cop” to oversee the environment laws.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the Government didn’t want “additional layers of bureaucracy”.

“The Government will take steps to strengthen compliance functions and ensure that all bilateral agreements with states and territories are subject to rigorous assurance monitoring,” she said.

The Government does support a move to devolve federal approvals to the states to create a “one-stop shop”, something that concerns Professor Hughes.

“What we are all concerned with is that the Government will cherry-pick those recommendations that they can use to make things easier for developments to take place, which will actually give us worse environmental conditions than before,” she says.

“Things could actually get worse rather than get better.”

Professor Pittock says there should be stronger national standards and that the states should change their laws to match.

“We need better information systems so that it is clearer to everybody where the places are of environmental importance that should be left alone versus those where development activities should occur,” he says.

“There is a need for more matters of national environmental significance to control things like the clearing of native vegetation. Australia is one of the top five countries undertaking deforestation in the world, it’s a disgrace.”

Professor Samuel’s final report will be published in October.

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Canberra school boys caught driving dangerously on endangered grasslands identified as possible sacred site

Four teenagers caught drifting and doing circlework on a possible sacred Aboriginal site near the Australian War Memorial in Canberra have been fined and had their cars impounded.

The boys, three from Daramalan College and another from Dickson College, were caught by police on Friday as they attempted to leave the site.

Locals said they had called police at least a dozen times in the past year warning that P-platers were using the grasslands near the for dangerous driving, damaging an endangered habitat and risking their own safety.

The land is under assessment by the federal Environment Department for its significance as a sacred Ngambri site.

On Friday, a resident told the ABC that he saw several boys were once again at the site, drinking and swapping cars as they took turns skidding across the wet grass.

He said he became concerned when a car scraped a tree.

A blue sedan skids along wet grass and pavement, as several cockatoos take flight
One witness reported a Subaru lost control while drifting and hit a tree.(Supplied)

“It came out off Quick Street … it spun around on there and went onto the footpath,” he said.

Police officers caught the cars as they were leaving, and fined four of the boys for driving on a nature strip, not displaying P-plates, failing to stop at a stop sign, and improper control of a vehicle.

“Police interviewed all the occupants of the vehicles, and after receiving assistance from the occupants, four of the drivers were issued with Traffic Infringement Notices,” a spokesman for ACT Policing said.

“Further investigations into similar activity identified another driver who has been responsible for similar behaviour in the same area between November 2019 to August 2020.”

Two boys in school uniforms run towards a car drifting on grassland.
The high school boys were seen running between cars as they drifted, reportedly taking turns to drive.(Supplied)

Police said none of the identified drivers returned positive alcohol breath tests.

The resident, who had made multiple complaints to police in the past 12 months — including the previous Friday when a separate car was seen drifting — said government inaction had led to more teenagers abusing the site.

“When one of them, the white four-wheel drive, starts to show it off, the others say ‘well okay, that’s where you can do this kind of thing’, because the ACT Government does nothing, basically.”

A red sedan drives along grasslands.
A red Audi was reported a week before the four teenagers were caught at the site, seen driving dangerously on the grasslands.(Supplied)

ACT Policing said it was investigating other reports into similar behaviour at the site.

“The area is identified as an area of significance to the traditional owners,” the spokesman said.

“Police are urging members of the public with any information regarding dangerous driving of vehicles in this area to contact Crime Stoppers.”

‘Deep-seated frustration’ at destruction of claimed Aboriginal site

The site has been identified by the ACT Government as an important habitat for several endangered flora and fauna, but the grasslands have been significantly damaged by vandalism.

Earlier this year, the ABC reported that claims the land was also a sacred Ngambri site, used for men’s business, had been ignored.

Ngambri man Shane Mortimer, who raised the claim to the site’s Aboriginal significance, said he felt the land had been disregarded.

“It’s a deep-seated frustration, it’s an intergenerational frustration. The land really does need to be cared for,” Mr Mortimer said.

A man wearing stands in a clearing surrounded by rocky outcrops, with Parliament House visible in the distance.
Ngambri man Shane Mortimer said the grasslands had been ‘obliterated’ by P-platers vandalising the site.(ABC News: Jake Evans)

Daramalan College said it could not comment on issues concerning individual students.

However Mr Mortimer said the school had agreed to organise for its Year 12 students to visit the site and learn about its significance.

“We really have to look now for that opportunity out of adversity,” Mr Mortimer said.

The ACT Education Directorate told the ABC that because the incident was outside of school hours and off school grounds, it had not been involved.

Minister agrees to investigate installing bollards

Residents said they had been calling for the ACT Government to do more to protect the site for some time.

A white ute drives along dust and paths.
The same white ute recently photographed at the site has been spotted drifting there before, including here in 2019.(Supplied)

In June, ACT Greens leader and Justice Minister Shane Rattenbury wrote to the City Services Minister Chris Steel asking for them to be installed urgently.

“Last week, I became aware that there has been regular illegal driving on a piece of ACT land adjacent to the CSIRO site in Campbell,” Mr Rattenbury said.

“The area is natural temperate grassland with significant geological features onsite. It is an important ecosystem incorporating significant Aboriginal heritage [and] susceptible species such as the Canberra spider orchid, sunray daisy, golden sun moth and button wrinklewort.

“I write to request that you consider asking City Services to erect a series of bollards on Quick St in Ainslie, where vehicles are gaining access to this site in order to protect the significant ecology and cultural significance as a matter of urgency.”

A spokesman for the ACT Government said it would undertake an assessment of vehicle access through the section, and work with the owners of the adjacent land, now Doma Group, on options to limit access for vehicles.

Mr Rattenbury said it was disappointing to hear the site had been damaged again since he first raised the issue.

“This area should be protected, and the solution here isn’t complicated. Bollards along the border of the site could have prevented this unnecessary damage from taking place,” he said.

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