Saturday, 10 June 2017

Owning the aliens: who should support endangered species thriving outside their home territories?

On holiday in Fiji last year I was surprised to learn that the most commonly-seen animals - with the exception of flying foxes - were recent introductions from other countries, primarily India. Examples include the red-vented bulbul, mynah bird, house gecko, and mongoose, all of which have brought their own problems to either native wildlife or Fijian agriculture.

From Hawaii to New Zealand, the deliberate or accidental introduction of non-native animals, plants and fungi has had profoundly negative effects on these previously isolated ecosystems. So what happens if an introduced organism, especially one that has a deleterious effect on wildlife, thrives in its transplanted habitat whilst becoming endangered across its original range? Two questions spring to mind: should the adopted homeland be able to exterminate the alien invader with impunity; and/or should the country of origin fund work in the invaded nation during a 'lifeboat' phase, until the home turf is suitable for restocking?

Almost inevitably, the countries with the highest number of at-risk species tend to be the poorer ones, Australia and the United States excepted. Reports over the past four years list a variety of nations with this sorry state of affairs, but amongst different conservation groups those within the top ten for endangered animal species include Indonesia, Malaysia, Ecuador, Mexico, India and Brazil. In some of these there is little political willpower - or indeed funding - to support anything deemed non-critical, with biodiversity seen as a nice-to-have.

For small nations such as Fiji there is little in the way of an environmental lobby. NatureFiji-MareqetiViti is an organisation that attempts to safeguard such threatened animals as the Fijian Crested Iguana whilst enhancing regional biosecurity, but with grants - including from the European Union - rarely exceeding a few tens or hundreds of thousands Fijian dollars they are woefully underfunded.

Which brings us to New Zealand, with its collection of endangered birds, lizards, freshwater fish and the Maui dolphin. In addition to Department of Conservation (Doc) budget cuts over the past decade - claimed by some organisations to total a 21% decline in real terms - the nation is home to several Australian animals that are nationally vulnerable in their native homeland across the Tasman Sea.

The green and golden bell frog (Litoria aurea) is a prime example of this, with a rapidly reducing Australian range having generated a status of 'globally vulnerable' yet being common enough in the northern part of New Zealand's North Island. I found this specimen at Auckland's Botanic Gardens earlier this year.

Therefore should the Australian Government fund a captive breeding programme - or simply a round-up - of individuals in New Zealand? After all, the latter has its own four native frog species, all rare and/or endangered, for its herpetologists to concentrate on.

There is a precedent for this. In 2003, three Australian trappers captured rare brush-tailed rock-wallabies on New Zealand's Kawau Island, where the marsupial's 'noxious' pest status meant
they were about to be targeted for eradication. The project included support from DoC but presumably - it's difficult to ascertain - the funding came from Australia.

Of course Australia may be able to afford to engage in restocking programmes abroad, but few other nations are in the same position. Although the largest conservation organisation in the world, the World Wide Fund for Nature (World Wildlife Fund in North America) has a comparatively large budget, even it cannot afford to support every repatriation or gene pool nursery scheme. Meanwhile, local charities such as NatureFiji-MareqetiViti tend to rely on volunteers rather than trained professionals and don't have the scope or capability for logistically-complex international undertakings.

With the USA becoming increasingly insular and Europe consumed with its own woes, the potential funding sources for these interim lifeboats is rapidly drying up. There are a few eco-angels, such as Norway's US$1 billion donation to Brazil - intended to curtail Amazonian rainforest destruction - but they are few and far between. It's one thing to support in-situ environmental issues, but another to raise funds to save selected endangered species thriving away from their native ecosystem.

It appears that there is no single solution to this, meaning that except for a few lucky 'poster' cases, many at-risk species may well fail to gain attention and be allowed to die out (or even be exterminated as foreign pests). The original home territory might no longer contain a suitable environment for them to thrive in whilst the foster nation lacks the impetus or funding to look after those pesky alien invaders. It seems that there are difficult times ahead!