War On Wildlife

war and environment 3This week we celebrate an international day that I bet you’ve never heard of. Little-known and clumsily named, its message is nevertheless vitally important. Next Thursday is the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, so declared by the UN General Assembly in 2001. Mankind always counts its war casualties in human terms – dead and wounded soldiers, civilian deaths, destroyed cities and livelihoods. The natural world remains the unpublicised victim of war. Waterways are polluted, forests destroyed, soils poisoned, and wild animals are killed. On 6th November the world acknowledges damage done to the environment through war, and looks for ways to avoid future harm. This is an issue I intend to explore in my next book.

Since the Romans sowed salt on Carthaginian fields during the Third Punic War, conflicts have damaged the earth, both intentionally and as a reckless side-effect. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein’s draining of marshlands in the Euphrates/Tigris Delta provides a classic example of deliberately targeting ecosystems to achieve political and military ends. Decades of war have devastated the forests and wetlands of War and environment 2Afghanistan and Pakistan. Bombing and deforestation threatens an important migration path for birds in this region. The number now flying this route has dropped by eighty-five percent in recent years.  Foreign aid workers helped drive snow leopards to the brink of extinction by paying thousand of dollars for pelts. Impoverished and refugee Afghans were more willing to break bans on hunting protected species. Once Sierra Leone was thick with ninety percent rainforest. Following conflict the country now has less than four percent forest cover. Decades of civil war threaten gorillas in the Congo. The depressing list goes on and on …


On rare occasions war has had positive effects. One of Asia’s safest, most diverse habitats for endangered species is a narrow, land-mined strip of jungle between two bitterly opposed nations. The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) has, by chance, helped safeguard war and environment 4moon bears, red-crowned cranes, and black-faced spoonbills from extinction. South Korea wants the United Nations to recognize the DMZ’s role in wildlife conservation by making it a World Heritage site – getting the international community to protect and expand the wilderness area. “No other place in Korea resembles what it looked like before the war,” says Lee Ki-sup, an ecologist from South Korea. Perversely, peace would be the worst possible outcome for this accidental sanctuary.

UNEPThere is hope. In recent years, an increasing number of governments have asked the UN  to conduct post-war environmental assessments. A team is currently examining the environmental impact of the conflict in Lebanon, and others are working closely with the governments of Sudan and Iraq. Rules, such as the Geneva Conventions, govern the conduct of war. However the environmental consequences are overlooked. It’s high time that we review international agreements related to war and armed conflict to ensure they also cover deliberate and reckless damage to the environment. BB14

National Tree Day

Nat Tree Day 1Today is National Tree Day. Combined with Schools Tree Day it is Australia’s biggest community tree-planting and nature care event. Co-ordinated by Planet Ark, these are special days for all Australians to help out by planting and caring for native trees and shrubs to improve the environment in which we live. National Tree Day started in 1996 and since then more than 2.8 million people have planted almost 20 million seedlings! It is held on the last weekend of July every year – this is the optimal planting time for the majority of Australians towns. However this might not suit certain areas, so you can find a date that suits you. As Planet Ark says, “every day is Tree Day”.

Nat Tree Day 4The organisers put great store in local provenance. This term describes native plant populations that naturally occur in a given area. Many native plant species can be found to occur across a broad geographic area or range. For example, hairpin banksia (Banksia spinulosa) naturally occurs across 3 states, from coastal Victoria to Cairns. However, the plants growing in a specific area have adapted to the local conditions over a long period of time. Although of the same species, a hairpin Banksia from southern Victoria will have a different genetic makeup to it’s cousin in Cairns, just as the same species of plant found on the coast will be different from that growing in the mountains. Different populations containing local genetic variations are called provenances. For true local provenance, the individual plant is grown from seed stock from parent plants within the same population (or as close by as possible). Preserving local provenance populations is an important way of protecting biodiversity. For more information visit the Benefits of Local Natives page.

Nat Tree Day 3One of my favourite singers, country music legend and former Australian of the Year, Lee Kernaghan has supported National Tree Day for over a decade.

“I grew up out in the bush and everyone living and working in regional Australia knows how important trees are to the land. National Tree Day is all about individuals, communities and the country coming together to plant trees and to make a big and positive impact for our great nation and future generations,” Lee says.

This year the campaign aims to reach the milestone of planting its 20-millionth seedling. Everyone can help by getting involved in one of the hundreds of organised community events, or just planting an indigenous tree in your own garden. Every tree makes a difference!


The Easter Bilby

Bilby 1

One of the things I enjoy most about this time of year in Australia, is how a little native marsupial is usurping the rabbit as an Easter symbol. Children see bunnies as fluffy harmless creatures, whereas in reality they are Australia’s greatest environmental feral pest. Rabbits are the single biggest factor in loss of our native species, due to competition for resources, vegetation change and land degradation. Small wonder many Aussies baulk at the Easter bunny!



That’s where the endangered bilby comes in, also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot. Same fluffy cuteness, same long-ears, and strong back legs that give it a half-hopping, half-scurrying gate. “They look like they’ve been stuck together by a committee,” says bilby conservationist, Tony Friend. “Huge ears that belong to a rabbit, soft grey fur, a tail that’s stuck out the back like a tufted pencil, and they gallop around like a rocking horse. They’re so different to any other animals.”

Bilby 2To raise money and increase awareness of conservation efforts, bilby-shaped chocolates and related merchandise are sold within many stores throughout Australia as an alternative to Easter bunnies. Bilby manufacturers that donate towards Bilby conservation include Pink Lady and Haigh’s Chocolates. Cadbury also produce Chocolate bilbies, although they do not donate to or support any bilby conservation projects.

Bilby 3Many Australian children’s books have been written about Easter bilbies. One of the first was Irena Sibley’s best selling The Bilbies’ First Easter, published by Silver Gum Press. In 1993, Australian children’s author Jeni Bright wrote the story of “Burra Nimu, the Easter Bilby“. It tells how Burra, a shy but brave little bilby, decides to save the land from the rabbits and foxes who are ruining it. Burra and his family and friends gather together for a wonderful time painting Easter eggs to give to the children and ask for their help. But before they can set off on their journey to the children, they must outwit the rabbit army. What a great story!

Until recently, Australia had two species of bilbies – the Greater Bilby and the Lesser Bilby.  The Lesser Bilby is already believed to be extinct, and time is running out for its larger cousin. If you want to help, you can sponsor your favourite real live bilby from the gallery and become a Bilby Buddy. Just click here! 

Why would anyone buy an Easter bunny when they could buy an Aussie Easter bilby?


In Praise of Paddock Trees

Paddock trees 2Picturesque paddock trees, providing shade and shelter for stock and wildlife alike, are an iconic image of rural Australia. We’ve all seen sheep and cattle seeking protection from the baking summer sun, under the spreading boughs of a lone gum tree. Such old-growth giants can be centuries old, the last survivors of long-vanished  forests. They will not last forever though. Thousands have been lost recently in Victoria’s Wimmera, for example. It’s important to properly appreciate their value, so we can protect those we have, and replace those we’ve lost.

Paddock Trees 3Paddock trees are much more than a shady spot for stock to camp under. They provide vital information about what existed prior to massive landscape change – genes, local provenance, microbial communities, soil fungi etc. They act as wildlife corridors, and help to preserve biodiversity and ecosystems. They form a leaf-litter layer for insects to live in. They provide forage, roosts and hollows for bats, birds, possums and koalas.

Buloke Red Tailed Black Cockatoostrees, for example, are the preferred food tree for endangered south-eastern Red-tailed Black Cockatoos, but less than two percent of this important food species remains. It takes a hundred years for a Buloke (a type of casuarina) to provide a decent feed, and they are not being replaced at a high enough rate to support Red-tailed Black-Cockatoos into the future. Click here to find out more about a wonderful recovery project aimed at protecting these magnificent birds.

Paddock trees 4Paddock trees also reduce erosion and salinity, enrich soils and provide a seed source for regeneration – the benefit list goes on and on. If these trees continue to disappear, future generations will inherit a vastly different landscape. Landholders, governments … all of us who own or care for paddocks, must rise to the challenge of reversing tree loss in grazing and cropping landscapes, whether the result of active clearing or simple neglect. Old growth paddock trees have taken hundreds of years to grow. They cannot be replaced in a person’s lifetime – we need to protect what remains while we can.


Phillip Island’s Penguins – A Conservation Success Story

Penguin Parade 1Recently I spent some time with my brother Rod, who lives on Phillip Island in Victoria. We went to see the Penguin Parade at Summerlands Beach, something I haven’t done for years. (Considering who my publisher is, it’s no wonder I love penguins!) This parade has been a popular tourist attraction since the 1920’s. Each night at sunset Little Penguins (commonly known as Fairy Penguins) return to shore after a day’s fishing. They surf in, then waddle up the beach to the safety of their homes in the sand dunes. At this time of year they also have chicks to feed. Visitors can watch the world’s smallest penguins from viewing stands and boardwalks without disturbing them. It is a fascinating glimpse into the secret life of a penguin colony. The conservation history of this colony is equally as fascinating.

Penguin Parade 4The first inhabitants of Phillip Island were the aboriginal Bunurong tribe based around Western Port. They lived in harmony with the island’s penguins for many thousands of years. Over the last century of European settlement however, nine of the ten penguin breeding sites on Phillip Island disappeared. The last remaining rookery was on Summerlands Peninsula, on the edge of a residential subdivision. In 1985 the Victorian government made a far-sighted decision – in order to protect the penguins, further development of the subdivision would be prohibited and all the existing properties would be progressively purchased by the state.

Removal of house from Summerland Estate

Removal of house from Summerland Estate

So began a twenty-five year effort to protect the Little Penguins of Summerland Peninsula. In June 2010 the government announced that the buy-back programme was complete. All houses on the estate had been removed or demolished. The land was revegetated and added to the Phillip Island Nature Park. As well as being a loveable icon for Victoria, the Penguin Parade generates $100 million dollars per year through tourism. What a perfect example of balancing the economy with the need to protect our environment!


The Ugly Animal Preservation Society

Ugly Animal Preservation SocietyAn elephant is killed every fifteen minutes to supply an insatiable and unsustainable demand for ivory. A rhino is killed every eleven minutes for horns that have as much medicinal effect as my big toenail. Wild lions could be gone in fifteen years as we teeter on the brink of the world’s sixth mass extinction. But it’s not just the charismatic, iconic animals in trouble. Forget pandas – ugly animals should be protected too. The Ugly Animal Preservation Society draws attention to less adorable endangered species, and I can’t wait for the show to come to Australia!

Gob-faced squidConservation issues are usually pretty depressing, so it’s refreshing for a comedy evening to take a conservation twist – scientists dabbling in comedy and comedians dabbling in science. Each has to pick an endangered (and ugly) species, and has ten minutes to champion it. At the end the audience votes, and the winner becomes the mascot of that regional branch of the society. In London it’s the proboscis monkey. In Edinburgh, the branch’s mascot is Australia’s own gob-faced squid.  The comedians take different approaches – some try to prove that their animal is not so ugly. Others admit, “They are hideous, but you know what, some days I wake up a bit rough myself!” But the main thing is to draw attention to the plight of these rare animals. These are species people don’t know much about, yet they all play a vital part in our ecosystem.

Just because an animal is unattractive, doesn’t mean we can ignore it. Take humble earthworms for example. Without them, tonnes of rotting organic rubbish would build up within months. Fly maggots microbatperform a similar function. Micro-bats are worth billions of dollars to agriculture yearly, by eating their weight in insects each night, while fruit bats are the vital pollinators and seed-dispersers of Australia’s great forests. So spare a thought for the less sexy species. They’re important too!