Who wants to be a billionaire?

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Ecology / Zoology

Late last week, my husband Euan Ritchie and I briefly ‘became’ billionaires in our quest to conserve some of Australia’s threatened mammals. Well ok, we never really had the cash, but that didn’t stop media outlets reporting we had ‘lost $2 billion’ when the pledged money later fell through. More on that saga later, but let’s dream for a moment. What could Australians do if we actually had that kind of money to spend on wildlife conservation?

Australia has many extraordinary species that aren’t doing well. With funding like that we’d be able to fund both the necessary research and practical conservation measures to save charismatic cute and furry species like the Northern Quoll, Victoria’s Leadbeater’s Possum, and Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. We’d be able to secure the future of the Orange-bellied Parrot and Carnaby’s Black-cockatoo. And we could protect the Southern Corroboree Frog and Short-nosed Sea Snake. Finally, we could be confident the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect has a future.


What would decent conservation funding mean to these Australian animals? Clockwise from top-left: Antilopine Wallaroo (David Webb), Spectacled Hare Wallaby (Henry Cook), Northern Quoll (Kieran Palmer via Flickr), Orange-bellied Parrot (Ron Knight via Flickr).

Would $2 billion cover my wish list? You bet. In fact Professor Hugh Possingham has estimated with just $400 million a year, we could save all of Australia’s threatened species. Sounds like a lot, but how about this for comparison. The annual federal defence budget is about $26 billion. So all we need to do is stop defence spending for three days and we could save all of Australia’s threatened species. Even if Australia stopped flying just one F/A 18 Super Hornet for half a year, we’d have enough funds to prevent the extinction of all of Australia’s birds for the next 80 years.

Australia’s sad extinction record

If you think I’m being overly cautious in worrying these species could be in real danger, unfortunately our history says otherwise. Over the last 200 years, Australia has lost more than 10% of our endemic land mammals, and a further 21% are considered threatened. Over the same 200-year period, North America has lost just one land mammal.

And unfortunately extinction isn’t a thing of the past. The Christmas Island Pipistrelle (a tiny bat) was confirmed extinct in 2009  — the first mammal to have gone extinct in Australia in 50 years. What happened? It was still common in 1984. The evidence is the bat disappeared because despite many warnings, the Australian government dilly-dallied and took no decisive action to prevent its extinction.

Conservation triage

As you might have guessed, there doesn’t appear to be anyone ready and willing to donate billions, or even millions to species conservation (Of course I’m happy to be proven wrong!). And government funding is being cut despite the fact we are losing species faster than ever before. What this means is we need to come up with strategies to ensure the limited funding we do have is spent in the best possible way.

If you’ve been to the emergency department of a hospital lately, the nurses you talk to first are highly trained in triage. They can assess whether you need immediate help or whether in fact someone else needs to take priority and you will be fine to wait a while. The conservation triage principle is similar. We need to prioritise our spending in order to use scarce financial resources most efficiently. The idea is to try to maximise our conservation successes given the limited money available.

Whether you agree with the principle of triage or not, one fact remains. We can’t make any informed conservation decisions without knowing what’s happening on the ground with our threatened animals.

Show me the data

Which brings me back to the $2 billion. Euan and I are currently running a Pozible crowdfunding campaign, the #BigRooCount, in order to continue our work with Australia’s northern kangaroos and wallabies. Ten years ago Euan and I had just finished four years of field work in remote parts of northern Australia, collecting information about four species of kangaroos and wallabies for Euan’s PhD. Our particular focus was the Antilopine Wallaroo. We know a lot about these populations from ten years ago but there haven’t been any ongoing studies since then.

Reports from indigenous communities aren’t good — they are seeing fewer and fewer kangaroos and wallabies. And Australia doesn’t have a good record when it comes to these animals. Roughly a third of the mammals we have lost over the last 200 years are kangaroo relatives.

The point is, without returning to the north, we won’t know what we’re up against or, more importantly, what could be done about it. That’s why we’re working hard to garner public support so we can raise the funds to find out what has happened to these kangaroos and wallabies over the past ten years. Professor Tim Flannery says it’s “fundamentally important research” and we are optimistic we’ll be able to raise the $15,000 we need to at least get started and resurvey all our north Queensland sites.

Euan Ritchie’s re-survey of kangaroos and wallabies across northern Australia 10 years on from his foundational PhD survey is fundamentally important research. Nobody but Euan can undertake the work, and I’m profoundly grateful that he’s willing to do it. Professor Tim Flannery

The Beatles famously said that money can’t buy love and the $2 billion pledge to our campaign that came and went is still a mystery. But a generous supporter could buy a lot of wildlife conservation love.

Links and stuff

Radio on demand

 This post accompanies a radio segment on Triple R’s Breakfasters program on Wednesday 29 April 2015. 


  1. I absolutely love our wildlife here in Australia. I’ve just pledged on the site and hope others support this campaign too.

  2. Pingback: See you again soon | Espresso Science

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