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How to improve wildlife conservation in Australia

4 September 2017
PhD student Kyle Ewart talks animal trafficking and conservation

With World Wildlife Day and Threatened Species Day both celebrated this week, it's important to discuss the fragility of our ecosystems and what can be done to ensure the survival of our native animals. 

Kyle Ewart is a PhD student completing his second year of research in wildlife forensic science at the University of Sydney in conjunction with the Australian Museum. In 2015 he graduated with Honours in Animal and Veterinary Bioscience before embarking in further studies. We sat down with Kyle ahead of the United Nations World Wildlife Day to discuss how he hopes to improve conservation of native animals in Australia and what we can do to help. 

Biodiversity in Australia

“Australia has had the worst decline in biodiversity of any continent over the last 200 years. As of 2016, Australia was in the top five in the world for species extinctions, and top 10 in the world for threatened species.” Ewart states.

“Key threats to Australian species include habitat destruction, invasive species, climate change, pollution, and the illegal wildlife trade.”

Given Australia is a country that loves the outdoors it may come as a surprise to know that our animals are suffering under difficult conditions.

“As Australians, we tend to think that we are pretty good environmentally; however, our laws are very lax when it comes to habitat destruction. Certain pieces of legislation are allowing increasing amounts of land clearing in Australia, which is having disastrous effects on our ecosystems.”

In saying this, Ewart is sure to point out there are several initiatives that do exist to try and reverse our declining native numbers. To ensure that these initiatives are effective he suggests integrating genetics and other scientific research.

“Genetics can be used to identify conservation units, and to assist decisions in the management of wild and/or captive populations of threatened species.” He says.

Animal forensic science

Kyle’s research seeks to improve animal conservation in Australia. His current focus is threatened native bird species including the red-tailed black cockatoo and the pink cockatoo.

“The aim of my project is to use genetic techniques to study the evolution and population dynamics of both species, which will have important conservation management implications, and to develop wildlife forensics tests to identify illegal trade of these species.” He says. 

“The development of wildlife forensic tools will provide the information required to determine whether a crime has occurred (and what crime), permit the detection of trade routes and poaching hotspots and will provide robust evidence for associated prosecutions.”

Illegal wildlife trade

The illegal trade of wildlife is worth billions of dollars and is becoming an increasingly popular black market activity like human, weapon and drug trafficking. Many animals make the black market hit-list depending on trends at any given time.  

“Some of the well-known target species include rhinos (for their horn), elephants (for their ivory) and sharks (for their fins).” Ewart confirms.

“Many less well known species are also commonly trafficked, such as Tokay geckos (sold as pets, and as a traditional medicine), serows (for their meat and body parts), and manta and mobula rays (for their gill plates).”

And what about our local animals? 

“In Australia, the illegal wildlife trade mainly involves lizards, snakes and parrots being sold into the illegal pet market.”

Given the significant threat animal trafficking plays on our wildlife, Ewart hopes his work can reduce the ease at which trade can occur in Australia.

“I hope that my work may help relevant authorities mitigate the illegal trafficking of cockatoos, and improve enforcement which may deter potential criminals from entering the trade, ultimately assisting the conservation of these iconic Australian species.” 

Make a difference

Although wildlife conservation might seem like a big problem better left to the government or particular animal welfare groups, there’s always something that can be done at the individual level Kyle assures. 

“Be informed, and spread the word! If everyone is aware of the threats to our wildlife, we can build a better future to ensure their survival. We should also be aware of what our local politicians are doing to conserve the environment and wildlife; they need to be reminded that conservation matters.”

“To minimize the wildlife trade, think about what you are buying, particularly if you are travelling overseas. If it looks wrong, it probably is! Think about where it might have come from, whether it is a bottle of snake wine, or a cheap bangle. If there is no demand for wildlife products, there won’t be any supply.”

Lastly Kyle also suggests thinking long and hard before buying a pet.

“It is important to consider the commitment required when purchasing an animal. For example, some cockatoos live more than 80 years - you need to make sure that your pet can be looked after for its whole life.”

Kyle divides his time between his PhD studies and his sporting pursuits. He recently competed in the FFA Cup for the Bankstown Berries before narrowly missing out on a top 16 finals berth.

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