The amount of habitat for the platypus in Australia has been reduced by 22% in 30 years and the animal should now be listed as a nationally threatened species, according to new research.
Scientists from the University of New South Wales, along with three of Australia’s largest environmental organizations, the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF-Australia, and Humane Society International Australia, have jointly nominated the platypus for an official list as vulnerable according to national environmental laws.
The group also nominated the platypus for the same status under New South Wales laws after an investigation found severe declines in platypus registrations in that state.
The platypus is an elusive animal, and the lack of long-term follow-up studies has made it difficult to quantify declining populations.
Scientists compiled all available data and records of the platypus to examine changes in both its distribution and appearance, concluding that it meets the criteria for a vulnerable list under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
Their research found that since 1990, the amount of platypus habitat in Australia had decreased by 199,919 square kilometers, or 22.6%, which is an area almost three times the size of Tasmania.
The steepest declines by state were recorded in New South Wales and Queensland, which recorded a reduction of 32% and 27% respectively in areas occupied by platypus.
“In terms of the main causes of these declines, the big concern is that they haven’t really stopped and appear to be ongoing and even getting worse,” said Tahneal Hawke, UNSW ecologist and one of the principal investigators.
“We expect the declines to continue.”
The biggest threats to the platypus are land clearing, river regulation, and drought.
Hawke said that in addition to listing the species as vulnerable, governments must address these threats and invest in actions for the recovery of the species.
In the Murray-Darling Basin, the study found a 30.6% decline in platypus records over the past 30 years. In some urban watersheds near Melbourne, the drops reached 65%.
In Victoria, the state scientific advisory panel recently recommended an official list of vulnerable for the platypus and the state government will decide within the next two months whether to support that listing.
“Protecting the platypus and the rivers it depends on should be a national priority for one of the world’s most iconic animals,” said Richard Kingsford, another lead author of the report and director of the UNSW Center for Ecosystem Science.
“There is a real concern that platypus populations will disappear from some of our rivers without returning if the rivers continue to be degraded by droughts and dams.”
When a species is nominated for a national listing, it is up to the endangered species scientific committee and the government to decide whether it should be evaluated.
The platypus’s nomination comes as a Senate investigation gears up to hold a one-day hearing on Monday on a bill to change Australia’s national environmental laws and clear the way for the transfer of federal approval powers to the states and territories.
The investigation has been called a “sham” and “false” by the Labor Party and the Greens, who had called for a Senate commission to thoroughly examine the government bill.
Instead, the government agreed to a two-week investigation that will report next week as the Senate prepares to debate the legislation.
In a submission to the investigation, the Australian Conservation Foundation said the government bill does nothing to address “fundamental flaws” in Australia’s environmental laws that were identified in an interim report of a review of the law.
Review chair Graeme Samuel delivered his final report to the government last month, but it has yet to be released.
“Legislation before the Senate does not address any of the key flaws in our environmental law. Rather, it exacerbates them, ”says the ACF communication.
The ACF has written to the inquiry to say that government records show that the bill before parliament was initiated before the independent review made any findings and that the legislation was “a predetermined outcome of the government.”
Guardian Australia previously reported that the government began preparing the bill in June before receiving Samuel’s interim report.
Freedom of information documents show that Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Washington Prime Minister Mark McGowan in February that he wanted to introduce a bill to transfer environmental approval powers to state governments by mid-year.
“For this reason alone, the bill should be abandoned and a more comprehensive legislative response developed that addresses the serious issues in relation to the EPBC Act,” the filing says.
The government has said that its support for “streamlining regulation” was well known and that proposed changes to the law currently before parliament had remained government policy since the Abbott government’s one-stop-shop legislation was rejected in 2014.
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