by Stuart Blanch, WWF-Australia Senior Manager Landclearing and Restoration
Losing more than we know
Remember the children's movie Gremlins and its adorable lead ‘mogwai’ Gizmo? All fur and over-sized ears, the strange but lovable creature was every merchandiser's dream and inspired a popular line of plush toys.
Australia has its very own Gizmo - the greater glider - and it has nothing like the same profile. Unless we act now, many Australians may never get to know this remarkable creature.
Nocturnal and solitary, the greater glider was once found throughout the eucalypt forests of eastern Australia, where it dined exclusively on eucalyptus leaves, buds and flowers. About the size of a cat, it wears a luxurious thick, fur coat and spreads its limbs to glide through the forest canopy, using its long tail as a rudder. They can glide up to 100 metres, and change direction up to 90 degrees.
But Australia's largest gliding mammal has precise housing requirements. Within its large territory, the glider needs up to 20 dens in tree hollows in which to spend its days sleeping. The trouble is, these dens can only be found in old growth trees, it takes approximately 100 years for trees to form hollows, and we are losing these old trees by the day.
In May 2016, the greater glider was sadly listed as vulnerable to extinction under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. The scientific committee that recommended its listing cited habitat destruction as a catastrophic threat.
Now you would think that any threatened species listed under the EPBC Act - the legislation designed to protect our unique environment and its suite of plants and animals - would be afforded the utmost protection. Think again.
Australia continues to experience some of the highest rates of species loss in the world and nowhere is the loss of mammals more pronounced. Invasive species, habitat loss, inappropriate fire regimes, disease and climate change are exacting a horrifying toll.
The magical greater glider is losing its habitat at an alarming rate. A recent WWF-Australia report found that habitat loss actually increased by 52% in New South Wales and Queensland after it was listed as vulnerable. Before the glider’s listing, an estimated 9,103 hectares of habitat was being destroyed each year, but this jumped to 13,864 hectares after its listing.
It was a similar scenario for the koala, after it was listed as vulnerable in 2012. How can this possibly be?
You might expect that EPBC Act listing protects the forest homes of such special animals, and prohibits any clearing that might significantly impact them. Instead, wildlife homes continue to be bulldozed for development, bringing into serious question just how effective our nation’s flagship environmental law actually is.
For starters, very few cases of unauthorised clearing are ever investigated by the Australian Government, so prosecutions under the act are extremely rare. To make matters worse, commercial logging can be exempted from the EPBC Act under Regional Forest Agreements (RFAs), which are meant to ensure the sustainable use and management of Australia's native forests.
In Victoria, more than 840,000 hectares of native forest is approved for logging and 73% of that area is likely to be home to greater gliders. Under RFAs, these precious forests can be clear-felled for logging due to an exemption under the EPBC Act. They are supposed to deliver equivalent protection to the EPBC Act but they have only achieved habitat destruction. To me, it simply beggars belief.
The Victorian RFAs were ‘modernised’ and the agreements extended to 30 June 2030, but this did not result in effective protection for greater gliders. In fact, this year it was proved in the federal court due to the persistent dedication of volunteers (Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Inc.) represented by Environmental Justice Australia relating to the effects of VicForest’s operations on the greater glider and the Leadbeater’s possum in the Central Highlands.
The count found, that VicForests has not engaged, and is not likely to engage, in a careful evaluation of management options to avoid wherever practical the very real threats of serious damage to the Greater Gilder which are posed by its forestry operations in the Central Highlands.
When it comes to the protection and management of our environment and its threatened species, no industry should be above or exempt from the law and there must be adequate oversight to ensure compliance with the law.
I've been working with WWF to limit habitat destruction and restore native homes for years. From all that I have seen and learned, strengthening our EPBC Act is crucial if we are to give our animals like the greater glider and koala a fighting chance. And the time for reform is now.
Every 10 years the government undertakes a review of the EPBC Act and that review is currently underway. WWF-Australia has already put forward detailed recommendations to the review panel. Most importantly, we want the government to create an independent Environment Protection Agency to ensure every Australian, business and organisation is doing the right thing for nature.
We’re ever mindful of the fact that destructive climatic forces are at play across our continent. The past four years have been the four hottest on record, resulting in prolonged summer heat waves, drought conditions, bushfires and flooding. In April, WWF’s greater glider report showed that the 2019/20 ‘Black Summer’ bushfires scorched nearly one-third of its likely habitat. In NSW, damage to 42% (1.86 million hectares) of likely glider habitat was severe or extreme, with the forest canopy partly or completely consumed. Few, if any resident gliders would be expected to survive bushfires of that intensity.
Unfortunately, we’re already seeing a trend towards more dangerous bushfire conditions throughout Australia due to climate change, and that trend is only likely to worsen. Future catastrophic bushfires will push the greater glider even closer to the brink of extinction.
In long-term monitoring sites throughout the logged mountain ash forests of Victoria, studies have shown that greater glider populations have declined by up to 77%. Frighteningly, WWF has also discovered that a large section of East Gippsland forest that is highly exposed to logging is not even mapped as likely glider habitat, despite 576 recorded glider sightings in the area. In addition to this, studies show that gliders are highly disturbance-sensitive as numbers decline when there has been logging in the surrounding landscape, not just their home range itself.
Our threatened species deserve the very best protection. It's the only way we can work towards protecting those native forests that remain - the forests that our dwindling populations of greater gliders and koalas now rely on.
So join us today to help end Australia's extinction crisis - wwf.org.au/endextinction - and guarantee a future for the next generation of Gizmos, before we lose the greater glider forever.