Western Australia is home to unique animals. Since early settlement, a number of these animals have become endangered or threatened; 11 species of mammals have become extinct; and around 30 species are experiencing significant population loss. Destruction of habitat and introduced predators have been key factors in reducing those populations. The drying climate of WA’s south-west and changing fire regimes, reflecting the direct effects of climate change on the state of WA, are also long-term threats to endemic animal populations.
The Perth Zoo Native Species Breeding Programme and the Western Shield initiative, are two examples of enterprises introduced to protect and replenish WA’s native animal populations. The Perth Zoo breeding programme aims to maintain and breed captive populations of a range of endangered native animals, with the objective of reintroducing them back into the wild. The Western Shield initiative, established in 1996 and now Australia’s largest conservation programme, aims to protect native populations in situ, by baiting feral cats and the European Red Fox.
Together, the two initiatives form a key part of the WA-based contribution to the Australian Government’s broader effort in fulfilling its obligations under the 1992 Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) and reaching the Aichi Biodiversity targets, outlined in the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, which was adopted in 2010.
Both programmes have had significant success over a long period of time. The Perth Zoo breeding programme has successfully re-introduced 741 Western Swamp Tortoises into the wild, effectively saving the species from extinction. Furthermore, it has helped facilitate the reintroduction of Numbats to WA sites over the last three years. Collectively, Perth Zoo’s programme has seen 4,000 individual animals released into the wild across the State.
The Western Shield initiative has successfully minimised the threat posed to native wildlife by introduced predators, over a range of 3.9 million hectares of WA land. Cat and fox baiting are key strategies and are targeted on areas where there are populations of threatened native species. Success of the programme has assisted the growth of populations of Chuditch, Quokka and the Western Brush Wallaby, within bushland sites that have been treated.
Despite the long-term success of these two programmes, significant challenges still face WA native wildlife. One such challenge is the impact of climate change. Changing patterns of rainfall mean that the state’s South-West is particularly vulnerable; the area has experienced a drying trend over the last two decades, as it has received less rainfall than the normal average. This area is home to the vulnerable native Chuditch and the Woylie. Changing fire regimes linked to climate change, including out of season fires of increased intensity and a more protracted fire season, also threaten vulnerable native species.
Initiatives such as the Perth Zoo breeding programme and Western Shield are critical to the conservation effort within WA, but these efforts are likely to be in vain if long-term plans to tackle and manage climate change are not implemented. While such environmental programmes and targets are already in place in WA, including the McGowan government’s a liveable environment targets and the strategies outlined in the issues paper Climate Change in WA, they must be more ambitious. Correspondingly, they must be effectively implemented and carried out more quickly to help protect vulnerable and endangered native species, many of them facing existential threats in the short-term.
Furthermore, to effectively carry out the underlying vision of the CBD, the Commonwealth Government must demonstrate decisive leadership and implement effective policy. This must include significant increases in Federal funding for state-led conservation programmes. Despite the success of Western Shield and the Perth Zoo breeding programme, state-led conservation can only provide marginal gains in the face of the continued effects of climate change. Truly effective long-term action, led by the Federal government, is the best means of properly helping vulnerable and threatened native species.