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April 21, 2018  |  Login

Threats to Australian Animal Species


At 3 million square miles (8 million sq km), Australia is the world's smallest continent. Yet its terrain is incredibly diverse, ranging from its central deserts to the rainforests of Queensland and Tasmania. The unique plant and animal life found in Australia is a reflection of its geographical isolation. Marsupials, or pouched mammals, such as the kangaroo or koala, have evolved into species as diverse as foetal mammals elsewhere in the world.

In an attempt to preserve Australia's rich biodiversity Unesco has designated a number of World Heritage Sites. Although some of these are recognized for their fossils, most have been awarded their special status because of the need to protect unique natural habitats.

Australia's flora and fauna are sensitive both to climate changes and to those brought about by humans. Some 34 species of animal are known to have become extinct in the past 30,000 years. The extinctions prior to the arrival of European settlers in the late 18th century were largely caused by an inadequate and fluctuating water supplies. More recent extinctions – of the Tasmanian tiger and several species of wallaby and bandicoot, for example – have been caused by humans.

Since their arrival in the late 18th century, European settlers have cleared and cultivated land in Australia, resulting in the loss of much of the country’s woodland and rainforest. Tree felling has led to soil erosion, and to the water table rising, which increases the salinity of the soil and destroys any trees left standing. New trees have been introduced but this has not helped: some of these cause further damage. The native pastures of Queensland, for example, are threatened by the non-native prickly acacia.

Animal species that have been introduced have also wreaked havoc. The natural habitats of indigenous birds and marsupials have been disturbed by grazing cattle and sheep. Aggressive hunters such as the fox (introduced by European sportsmen as quarry) kill indigenous species, as well as the non-native rabbit. The cane toad, introduced as a pest-control measure, has itself turned into a pest.


Australia’s rich biodiversity is, however, protected by a network of nearly 9,000 protected areas, covering 11 percent of the continent. The country also has a “necklace” of more than a dozen marine protected areas. UNESCO has designated a number of World Heritage Sites, many of which are intended to protect unique natural habitats. They include islands in the Indian Ocean and Tasman Sea for which Australia has responsibility. The most famous site is perhaps the Great Barrier Reef – 135,100 square miles (350,000 sq km) of coral. As one of Australia’s major tourist attractions, government agencies and environmental groups have to work hard to protect it from the ravages inflicted each year by hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Under the 1999 Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, a comprehensive national protection scheme for wildlife has been developed that includes rigorous assessment of building developments likely to affect the habitats of threatened or migratory species. More recently, in response to habitat changes brought about by global warming, the government expressed the intention to create a “climate corridor” of linked reserves and natural habitats, running the length of the continent’s east coast, to enable species to move in response to changes in temperature and weather patterns. Time will tell whether these measures will reverse the decline of Australia’s wildlife.

Mackay, Richard (2009) The Atlas of Endangered Species © Myriad Editions. Available from:

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