Sunday, March 15, 2009

Climate woes hit flagship species close to home

Bridie Smith 
The Age, March 16, 2009

IT'S not just exotic animals living in icy continents that are at risk of extinction because of climate change. According to a report, some of the species most threatened by climate change call Australia home.

"What a lot of people don't know is that a third of Australia and New Guinea's macropod species, which are kangaroos and wallabies, are threatened with extinction," said the report's author, Tammie Matson. Commissioned by WWF Australia for Earth Hour, the Climate Change and Species report reviews research on 10 species — including polar bears, African elephants and kangaroos — and outlines their plight in a warming planet.

Dr Matson said most of the threatened kangaroo species were small animals, such as the tree kangaroo, rock wallaby and hare wallaby. Those animals most at risk are under pressure from loss of habitat, introduced species and hunting. "Species are getting hounded on all fronts," she said.

Since European settlement in Australia, nine of the 83 species of macropods have become extinct and 28 are listed as threatened.

The Great Barrier Reef is also set to endure bleaching events that are more extreme and more frequent due to global warming, with mass coral deaths forecast to occur regularly by 2060.And Dr Matson said it was an urgent problem, with as many as 80 per cent of the world's corals at risk of dying within decades. In 1998 alone, 16 per cent of the world's corals died. "If we lose a flagship species, we stand to lose a lot more than just that species," she said.

Dr Matson listed the tigers of the Sunderbans as one of the worse cases, with only 400 individuals remaining in the wild. These tigers, which live in the mangrove forests of India and Bangladesh, risk losing their habitat as sea levels rise.

Research presented last week at a climate change meeting in Denmark warned that sea levels could rise by more than a metre by 2100, significantly worse than a rise of up to 59 centimetres by 2100 previously projected.

However, she said polar species that lived in areas that were warming at a greater rate than average could be extinct within 75 years.

Earth Hour takes place from 8:30pm on Saturday March 28. The Age is an official sponsor.

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