Tuesday, 5 September 2017
Australia markets itself to the world as a clean, green country. We say we have an abundance of wilderness teeming with wildlife and global environmental credentials in flora, fauna and landscape systems. However, wildlife diplomacy shatters this perception. But let's start with Australia's shameful record as the nation with the highest rate of mammal extinctions since European colonisation reported anywhere in the world. Currently, 55 Australian animals are listed as becoming extinct in the wild since 1788, 30 of them terrestrial mammals. These numbers are on the rise. In May 2016, another 49 flora and fauna species were federally listed as threatened with extinction, including six more mammal species. Another 80 ecological communities, habitats for the species dependent on them, are listed as endangered, with as little as one per cent left for some of the communities. Another 506 animals are listed as threatened at a federal level, and 109 of those species are mammals.
Extinctions happen incrementally. There are untold local extinctions happening across Australia with no-one noticing. And yet, within this context of irreversible loss and destruction, governments continue to approve, fund and facilitate the destruction of our ecological communities. This means terrible suffering and obliteration of the wildlife within them. Land clearing removes habitat and that contributes to the extinction pressures on our unique species and causes considerable suffering on individual animals.
This is no surprise, given the support governments provide to industries that explicitly and unashamedly profit from the pain and suffering of animals. Tragically, the suffering of wildlife seems to be widely ignored and is clearly a throwaway consideration for Australian governments and departments at all levels. It is a great irony that governments and ministers continue to use our wildlife as live gifts or objects of curiosity to promote diplomatic goodwill or to cultivate political relationships and the trade deals that follow. This is done without a second thought to the distress and suffering inflicted on the individual animals used in this way. There is no excuse to plead ignorance or argue that animals are not sentient and are not capable of suffering.
This mechanistic view belongs to centuries past. Common sense, thoughtful observation and empathy towards animals are increasingly supported by science, confirming the suffering borne by animals used by humans. The science is clear: confinement and lack of ability to physically live, move, behave and interact according to a species' being is cruel. Loud noise is a recognised stressor in all animals. Exposure to crowds and noise causes abnormal behaviour due to stress. When animals are moved, particularly to other countries, changes in food and disrupted feeding patterns, along with environmental changes, can result in serious illness. These serious problems are widely recognised by experienced wildlife rehabilitators. Removing individual animals from bonded fellow species causes suffering. High cortisol levels, signs of heightened stress and a need to flee persist for days or weeks in transported animals. These problems are well documented.
Despite that, Australian governments are allowing the use of Australian wildlife in exercises of diplomacy or under the guise of protecting species from extinction. A recent example is continuation of a history of platypus diplomacy, which began with a young live platypus gifted and shipped to Winston Churchill in 1943, despite the certainty of suffering and likely death of the animal. Experts advised this would most likely be the outcome, and it was. In 1958, three platypuses were sent to the Bronx Zoo and they died within a year. Our iconic platypus is an animal unlike any other in the world. This species, however, could be extinct due to the destruction and death of Australia's rivers and waterways.
Despite a long history and high likelihood of exported platypuses dying, Taronga Zoo is working with San Diego Zoo to export platypuses in exchange for the import of African Okapi to populate its displays of live animals. I was alerted to the San Diego Zoo plans by Dr Tom Grant and Professor Frank Carrick. In Senate estimates in February this year, the Threatened Species Commissioner divulged that San Diego Zoo would be investing $500,000 into a yet to be detailed platypus conservation project in Australia. Meanwhile, platypus habitat continues to be destroyed. This appears to be occurring with few, if any, checks by government. This suggests a worrying cash-for-export-and-display deal that ignores the known suffering of transported animals and the high risk of death. I want to share with you some correspondence from Tom Grant. On 21 June, he wrote:
It is of concern to me that the export of platypuses to overseas institutions for display and financial gain is being proposed, when surely the highest priority must be to preserve wild populations and to establish a number of genetically diverse breeding populations within Australia as source animals for possible release back into the wild, should they become necessary for the conservation of the species. These priorities are further highlighted by Mr Gary Fry, from Taronga Zoo, reporting at the national conference that the successful captive breeding of platypuses is still considered difficult to achieve.
Professor Frank Carrick also spoke about the conference that occurred at Taronga Zoo. He said:
It would be crazy to jeopardise these current National Interests by permitting any live Platypus to leave Australia.
… … …
This purported export scheme very much smacks of a money grab by the proponents which, like overseas export of Koalas has done in the past, is destined to have nil or trivial benefit to the species or the nation (as opposed to zoos or mining companies!). It is particularly egregious that the suggested recipient is San Diego Zoo—which has made multi millions of dollars … from display merchandising and on-selling Koalas to zoos in various parts of the world; with a relatively trivial benefit to Koalas, let alone their rapidly diminishing habitat …
Koalas have also been used by successive governments keen to promote wildlife diplomacy. What about the koalas—where are the benefits to their preservation? What is going on at DFAT with regard to wildlife diplomacy? There are many questions they need to answer. What environmental advice do they have to justify wildlife diplomacy? Is DFAT tracking how many of its wildlife diplomacy animals have died? What did they die of? Is DFAT considering putting the interest of animals before that of the government, or do trade and diplomatic interests trump wildlife conservation and animal welfare? Exactly how have the species or the individual animals benefited from being removed from their homes? How have they benefited from suffering the transport to the overseas destination? What about being displayed as charismatic curiosities to crowds in foreign zoos day in and day out? Out of eight koalas pledged by South Australia to the Hong Kong zoo in 2010 and 2011, just two are still resident at the zoo, with no information available as to the outcome for the six remaining pledged animals.
The localised extinctions of platypus and koalas continue apace, symbolic of the suffering and loss of so many other animals that most Australians barely know exist. Where have our government ministers, zoo directors, diplomats and ministers been while wildlife diplomacy has been wreaking havoc? The diplomatic trade in wildlife and the marketing exercises by governments to veneer over the suffering they are causing and the extinctions they are presiding over is a national disgrace.
Our foreign minister, Julie Bishop, describes koala diplomacy as a marketing exercise that portrays Australia in a soft light and promotes our values as an open, free, tolerant democracy. They are her words: 'our values as an open, free, tolerant democracy'. What rubbish, considering we face the increasing likelihood of more extinctions as habitat is bulldozed for development and mining. We must stop treating animals as commodities or curiosities. We have a responsibility to treat them with respect as sentient creatures. That means stopping wildlife diplomacy; ending photo op wildlife circuses when foreign diplomats come to this country; and conserving what little natural environment and biodiversity we have left. There is still time.