Wildlife and Climate Change: Towards robust conservation strategies for Australian fauna

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Daniel Lunney, Pat Hutchings
Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Jul 18, 2012 - Science - 217 pages
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When that outspoken, provocative science communicator Paul Willis, then of ABC TV’s Catalyst, raised the option of the topic of wildlife and climate change for the 2010 RZS forum, fellow councillors of the Royal Zoological Society of NSW hesitated. As scientists, we knew that, for this subject, long-term studies were essential, although finding support for such studies is difficult, and setting up experiments in the field brought new challenges in design. It was apparent that climate change would exacerbate existing threats, such as the impacts of land clearing, pollution, drought, altered fire regimes and over-exploitation, as well as the issues of threatened species management and invasive species. It would make some locations less habitable for native fauna and flora but more habitable for invasive species, and land clearing and fragmentation would hinder adaptation by species to a changed climate. The challenge to manage this subject in a one-day forum was daunting, but we were concerned that zoological aspects of climate change were being overshadowed by the politics of the matter, such as who pays for the mitigation of the causes of climate change. The need to develop adaptation strategies for our wildlife is pressing, but it will take time to design, test and implement them for the predicted harsher world in which wildlife survival chances will have been further diminished. However, the RZS took on the idea, and the day attracted a wide range of views and studies. We are better for the leap, and more importantly, so is the Australian fauna.

aul Willis, with characteristic boldness, added the subtitle of ‘towards robust conservation strategies for Australian fauna’. It was clearly no use just standing there wringing one’s hands and wondering what to do about wildlife and climate change, or hoping someone else would do something. The real need is to identify the target - robust conservation strategies - and work towards it, and to encourage others to think positively about their work and the direction it might be going.

Being zoologists, we narrowed the broad theme of climate change to wildlife. Wildlife under some definitions, such as the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974, includes plants, and although they are included in this forum, we kept our focus on animals. We could have used the term biodiversity, knowing it is usually recognised as encompassing genetic diversity, species diversity and ecosystem diversity. However, the term does not have the immediacy to it that the word ‘wildlife’ conjures up. The word ‘wildlife’ continues to resonate publicly with a great number of people, and it carries with it a sense of responsibility, from backyards in cities to the remote corners of nature reserves. We are happy as scientists to use the words interchangeably, but as zoologists, we know that animals appeal to many of our senses because of their appearance and because they capture the imagination. Biodiversity is more conceptual, and that’s fine for constructing policies, management programs and for bracketing the variety

of life on Earth into one word. While we also used the word ‘fauna’, ‘wildlife’ was chosen in the opening words because the phrase ‘wildlife and climate change’ has that special resonance. However, we did use fauna in the second part of the title because it captures a sense of the animals at a location, that location here being Australia.

When we wrote the flyer for the forum, which was held on Saturday, 23 October 2010 at the ANZ Conservation Lecture Theatre at Taronga Zoo, Mosman, we added a lead paragraph to give a sense of the intent of the day. A lightly-edited version of that paragraph is as follows: As awareness of climate change issues increases across society, questions arise about the possible effects on fauna, and what may need to be done to help conserve ecosystems and their wildlife populations. The key element of this forum – its focus on Australian fauna – provides an opportunity for researchers to exchange ideas and findings on the likely impacts of climate change on the particular animals and environments they study. Many future impacts are expected to be negative for fauna, including shrinking geographic ranges, increasing fragmentation of distributions, altered competitive regimes with invasive species, and increased extinction rates. Further, these impacts will be imposed on species and systems already stressed by human disturbance. The forum will discuss the potential of the Australian terrestrial fauna to adapt “under its own steam”, and the way in which management policy and practice must also adapt in a warming world. Climate change will have many different types of ecological impacts, affecting the abundance and distribution of animals and plants, interactions between species, how threats affect species, and the functioning of ecosystems. Importantly, different species will respond in different ways. The aim of the forum is to discuss the research findings and consider options for the adaptation of our fauna to a changed climate. This forum looks at both ecosystems and species, and from quite different perspectives. Climate change compounds the existing suite of threats that have already drastically changed the distribution and numbers of Australian animal populations, and strategies to assist the Australian fauna adapt to climate change will need to bear these existing threats in mind if they are to be robust.

Paul Adam captures this point succinctly in his view that climate change is not a valid excuse for failing to address other threats. The plenary sessions were interposed during the day to raise questions, to put forward new ideas and consider new lines of research and policy development. The plenary sessions, which were recorded professionally by Spark and Cannon, are published here along with the papers presented, both those spoken as well as those presented as posters. We are indeed grateful to Daniel Keogh, a Catalyst colleague of Paul Willis, for so ably managing the plenary sessions so that everyone in the theatre had a chance of contributing. The forum prompted two extra papers to be written, one by Gary Luck and the other by Harry Recher. As editors, we have drawn the threads together in a final paper to give some more background to the climate change debate from a zoological perspective.

We are indebted to all the authors who persisted in carefully turning their presentations into written works, and responding to the referees’ comments. We also appreciate Matt England writing the Foreword so that we can see the climatological context in which zoologists work as we face a harsher world. We are also indebted to all the referees, and each paper was independently reviewed by more than one referee. Also, each paper was edited by us for consistency of style for this publication.

As editors, we have enjoyed the process, valued the outcomes, and we look forward to a stronger accent in the future on our national effort to conserve our wildlife in the face of a changing climate. 


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