euan ritchie australia wildlife extinction crisis interview

AE 657 – Interview: Australia’s Wildlife Extinction Crisis with Professor Euan Ritchie

Learn Australian English in this interview episode of Aussie English where I chat with Professor Euan Ritchie about Australia’s wildlife extinction crisis following the worst-ever bushfire season.

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G'day, you mob! And welcome to this episode of Aussie English. Today is an interview episode, and today, I am chatting with Associate Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Deakin University Euan Richie. Now, on his About Me page, he says that he applies ecological theory with good doses of fieldwork to seek solutions to challenges of conserving biodiversity, and that his main interests, rather wide palette of interests here, include behavioural community, evolutionary landscape and population ecology, as well as conservation, biology and phylogeography. Loads and loads of big words there, guys, but in a nutshell, Euan is someone who has an immense passion for Australian wildlife and its conservation.

So, the story, the background here, I met you in back in 2012 when I was studying my PhD, I just started and I'd been dragged along to the mammal conference in Port Augusta in South Australia and Ewan was there and, if memory serves me correctly, he was doing some impressive work on dingoes and their role in the environment.

So, I remembered him recently in light of the bushfires that have gone through and reading many articles about the effect that those bushfires have had on Australia's native wildlife, and I thought I would shoot him an email and ask him to come on the podcast to tell us his story about how he ended up as an ecologist, but also to talk about Australian wildlife and bushfires and the pressure that climate change is putting on Australia's native wildlife. So, without any further ado, guys, let's get into it.

Euan Richie, welcome to the Aussie English podcast, it's great to have you here. You are an associate professor at Deakin University of Wildlife Ecology, and I thought it would be great to have you on today to talk about the recent bushfires and Australia's wildlife and what's going to happen in the in the near future. Welcome!

Thank you very much, it's great to be here.

Good on you! So, starting off, can you tell me a bit about your story? I know that you did your bachelors and PhD at James Cook Uni up in Queensland. What sparked off your interest in wildlife, but Australian wildlife as well and turned itself into a lifelong career?

Yeah, sure. So, I guess I really got the bug, if you like, for nature ever since I was a little boy and I spent a lot of time running around actually on rocky platforms and shorelines in Victoria, particularly down on the Mornington Peninsula, on the on the back beaches there and fantastic rock pools and so forth.

And my parents encouraged me, fortunately, and my mum, even when I was younger as well, would help me pick up dead birds and the side of the road and inspect them and do that kind of weird stuff that people like I still do, as a kid maybe it's a bit weird, but I guess the point is I really fostered my love of nature and I had that very early on. And so, and like a lot of, I think, ecologists and conservation biologists, I did think about being a vet at one point, but very quickly realised that I probably wasn't going to have the grades for that, but more importantly, I didn't really I think have the, I guess, the ability to tell people on a daily basis, on a regular basis that a dog or a cat was going to die.

This is why they have such high suicide rates, right?

It's actually, you know, it's an amazing job that they do, but I can imagine it's incredibly emotionally challenging, a bit like being a nurse, I think, you know, seeing people die or suffering daily, that just wasn't for me, but when I realised that there was an actual job called being a zoologist or a conservation biologist, and you could actually make your whole life helping to conserve nature and running around and being amongst it, I thought that's for me.

Do you ever get that question, "you going to work in a zoo"?

I got that quite a lot, actually. It's amazing that people don't know what Zoology actually is. Yeah, so and then I grew up in Melbourne, obviously, and then I thought, now I'm going to go to James Cook University to study marine biology like half of Victorians seem to do.

Why is that not a good choice? Because, yeah, as you say, a lot of people end up there.

For that degree, it is one of the places in the world to study marine biology. Now, ironically, of course, one of the many reasons that people go there is to work on the Great Barrier Reef. And unfortunately, that's dying as we speak. But once I got up there, I very quickly realised that not only was the Great Barrier Reef is one wonderful thing, but James Cook University in Townsville is incredibly well-placed because within a couple of hours, pretty much in any direction, you had the reef, you have rainforest, you have tropical savannas, you have deserts, you have this incredible ability to be in a huge range of environments and species.

Even on JCU campus, there's dingoes on campus, there's pythons, there's frilled neck lizards. It's a wonderland, and so it's a great place to do an undergraduate degree. And so I spent about nearly 15 years living in north Queensland. So, I did my undergrad there, my honours, I was a research assistant for a little bit, my PhD, then I went back to Melbourne for a year and went back out there again and did a post-doc. And so, I have a pretty long association and love for the North Queensland environments.

What separated you away from, I guess, marine biology? Because James Cook Uni is obviously known for marine biology being so close to the Great Barrier Reef, what tore you away from that and back to terrestrial biology?

Yeah, a couple of things, I think. One is that I have asthma, so I probably can't dive, which does rule out your opportunities with marine biology, but I also didn't really have a strong fascination with coral and fish as much as I did other things, so they're wonderful things and I am still in awe of them and still enjoy snorkelling and doing all those things, but I fell in love with other things and particularly mammals, so I became a terrestrial ecologist primarily.

And, so I was looking at your main interests and they are in behavioural community, evolutionary biology, landscape, population ecology. Pretty much everything. Was it that you were more of a jack of all trades then, in terms of interests than really nutting down and wanting to get into one sort of area, one tax or one one animal, one organism?

Yeah, yeah, I had been criticised of that. And I'm probably one of these people that gets fascinated by too many things and jumps from one thing to the next. I would say that my strong passion now is doing research that has a strong applied and conservation focus. And I do a lot of work on mammals and also predator-prey interactions, but also environmental policy, but I think there's also I work on a wide array of things, partly also because I think, you know, the world is complex, ecology is complex, and to really make changes in regards to the huge challenges we have, we have you really can't focus on one just one organism or one aspect.

You really have to be across a number of different things, and that suits my personality because I do have a wide interest in lots of different things. I've also worked on parasites and deformities in frogs in the past as well. Yeah, I guess the one common thread that my work now hasn't has had for a long time is that it tends to be quite applied. So, it's trying to address a conservation or management issue by using science to do that.

So, what are some of the biggest questions that you're interested in in answering at the moment with your work?

Yeah. So, some of the big challenges, of course, that relate to Australia in particular are how can we maintain native wildlife in the presence of invasive predators? So, feral cats and foxes being the two really important ones there. So, I do a lot of work on that respect. Fire ecology, so understanding how species respond to fire and that's obviously become ever more important after these recent fires that we've had in his last year.

Predator-prey interactions and living with predators so, there's obviously a growing realisation about how important predators are in the landscape in terms of all the different things they do, but obviously things like wolves and dingoes and large cats and so forth do threaten people, they can kill livestock, and all that sort of thing. So, they're a challenging group of animals to try and conserve and, so I'm very interested in how can we minimise human wall conflict so it can have benefits both for people and for animals and for agriculture as well. So, there are some big of the big things that I'm interested in.

Because it's some of the saddest things, right. I mean, I remember learning about the thylacine, and I'm not sure what the state of current research is in terms of how it went extinct. I know that, obviously, people hunted it, but there was some stuff from The Smithsonian suggesting they had potentially gone through a bottleneck and were suffering from some diseases at the same time. But there was a big misconception that they were hunting sheep at the time, right?

But in actual fact, it was probably that they were just scavenging sheep, the same with wedge-tailed eagles. I think my dad, who's Zoologist, was telling me that wedge-tailed eagles were hunting rabbits heaps when the rabbit introduced, but that rabbits went nuts because everyone was hunting the wedge-tailed eagles thinking they were killing sheep. So, could you talk a bit about our role with with predators like that and how it is a balance? And if we do kind of screw with it too much, it ends up that everyone loses.

Yeah, that's right. So, I think, you know, the wedge-tailed eagles is a good example that I think there was a lot of misconception out there that they were killing large numbers of lambs, and they do occasionally kill lambs, but very small numbers, but they do also kill foxes as an example. And foxes kill lambs, but they do take a lot of rabbits, and rabbits are a big problem for agriculture as well as for the environment, and so science now suggests that wedge-tailed eagles probably almost certainly a net benefit and probably quite a strong net benefit to have in the landscape, and of course, they have a right to be conserved regardless of what we think anyway.

Are they still repopulating too? After, you know, 100, 150, 200 years ago when they were being hunted, they still recovering from that state as well?

In some areas, they may be. I'm not an expert, unfortunately, in wedge-tailed eagles. Obviously. And as a sub population or subspecies of wedge-tailed eagles in Tasmania that are doing far worse. So, there are threatened species on the mainland, of course. There was a horrible incident, I think was last year or the year before, a person in Victoria who'd killed hundreds of eagles over a period of time poisoning, and that person was, I think if they haven't been to court, they're going to court.

Was that intentional?

Intentional. Yeah. So they'd basically poisoned them. And so there's still unfortunate examples of that where people are doing horrible things and doing them really, again, with, you know, even even if you accept doing that, which I don't, but they're doing it for the wrong reasons. Like there's just no good evidence that having Engels around is going to have any really substantial impact on your sheep and so forth. And so that's a real shame that that sort of mindset still persists.

So, I think, you know, there is still this real need to understand the benefits predators have as well as the impacts that can have, and so there's good examples with dingoes, as an example, that dingoes, one of the probably most important things they do is control kangaroo numbers and keep those numbers lower than they'll otherwise be. And so since European settlement, we've cleared a lot of land, we put in permanent water and we've killed dingoes in many areas, and that's led to explosion in kangaroo numbers.

And so kangaroos often getting quite high numbers and then when you have a drought, period, those kangaroos dying quite high numbers, which is awful for them. And it also impacts the environment because they often overgraze that environment on on the on their way out. And so having a large predator like a dingo on a landscape is good for the environment and it's also good for the grazier, because if you have less kangaroos, that means less competition with your livestock. And so now, of course, the question is, yeah, but what about dingoes eating calves or sheep? And they certainly do. Obviously, dingoes and sheep really just don't mix very much at all.


But cattle, the story is different in that, you know, occasionally dingoes will attack for full grown cattle.

No kidding? full adults?

Yeah, yeah. But rarely because it's a dangerous thing for a dingo to do because cows are large and dingoes are quite small, roughly 15 to 20 kilos max, but they will occasionally take calves as well. But there's been modelling that shows that having dingoes in your landscape, even if they do occasionally attack cattle, it's a net benefit to the grazier.

And I think the other thing with with the predator side of it is that we can actually accommodate predators with livestock by using non-lethal approaches. So, guardian dogs, so some people might know the movie 'Oddball', the big white dog that protects penguins, they can also protect livestock. And that's what they were bred for, in fact. And so we do have solutions available to us to accommodate both agricultural, as well as ecological and conservation values.

So, what are some of the biggest differences with Australia the way it is today, ecologically, environmentally, because of this change in predator composition, particularly the mainland? I know that we used to have Tasmanian devils, we used to have thylacine, we used to have thylacoleo, a bunch of other predators that were much larger, but they're all gone. Does Australia today really represent what it was like a few thousand years ago?

No, it's dramatically different for a number of reasons. So, we've lost all those large predators that you speak of and we obviously still have Tasmanian devils in Tasmania and that's it. But they used to be in... on the Mainland as well.

Where they would have been called 'devils', right?

Yeah, well, and potentially multiple species. Obviously we had the thylacine on the mainland too. And many people wouldn't realise that there's cave paintings of thylacine in Kakadu National Park, which is in the Northern Territory. So, they had a really wide distribution.

We had five species of them or something on the mainland, right?

Yeah, there's a lot work being done to try and work out exactly how many large carnivores we have. I actually noticed today in the media that a new species is marsupial lion has been reported from the Riversleigh deposits. But the other thing that's changed, of course, is that unfortunately post European invasion about 230 years ago, Aboriginal people have been displaced from a lot of the land and that has influenced our fire regimes, that has influenced hunting itself as well, of course, we've cleared huge amounts of land. Australia has one of the highest land-clearing amounts in the world, which has changed the habitat structure, and of course, in many areas we have wiped out dingoes, we've introduced cats and foxes and rabbits, and rabbits, which actually increase fox numbers, in many cases.

That's an interesting relationship there that I'd love for you to sort of expand a bit, right? I know I was looking at some invasive species research recently and, apparently, rabbits are by far and away the worst in terms of the number of species that they impact.

That's right.

321 species or something. I was expecting the cane toad or something to be way up there, I don't even think it was in the top 10.

No. Cane toads can have an impact on northern quolls, but compared to some of the other species, they just don't, right? So, when you consider plants that are impacted by European rabbits, it's really high and there was good evidence of that when the calicivirus went through that plants that hadn't been seen in the arid zone for decades or more started to emerge because they've been relieved from grazing pressure.

And there's evidence as well from South Australia where rabbits have been suppressed, cat and fox numbers went down and native mammal numbers went up. And the reason that is, as I was saying, that, you know, cats and foxes love to eat rabbits. And that means their numbers are often higher than they were otherwise would be if rabbits were absent.

But what that also means is that native animals are trapped in what we call a situation of hyper predation. So, that is that if you have more cats and foxes than you would otherwise have because of rabbits, that even puts further pressure on the remaining native mammals that exist, particularly in rabbits crash, which they do because they go in for booms and busts.

And when those rabbits and not available to the cats and foxes to eat, then they look for other food, and that's obviously often the surviving native mammals or reptiles or birds that might be in that environment. So, rabbits are a huge issue both from a plant perspective, and that also means shelter for other animals too, but also for perspective of inflating cat and fox numbers.

Is there any possibility in your eyes as a wildlife ecologist that will ever be rid of those species or are they the kind of species that are here for good?

I can't imagine a scenario, at least in the short time, where we'll be rid of foxes or cats and even probably rabbits, unless people go down the path of 'CRISPR' or 'gene drive', which is what I'm interested in and, you know, has potential, but it's also quite dangerous potentially as well.

Can you expand on that? Sorry. Just briefly, I saw some stuff on that on Netflix and they were talking about introducing CRISPR into New Zealand to get rid of rats, I think it was. What is CRISPR and how would that deal with our problems with introduce species?

So CRISPR is essentially genetically editing species or individuals and to try and basically get rid of them. To give them sort of suboptimal traits and so forth. That would mean eventually that they would decline, I guess, towards extinction. I'm not an expert at all in CRISPR, so...

I think one example is that they produce animals that can only give birth to males. So, you end up one whole population that's just males and obviously...

That sort of thing can be done. Gene Drive is slightly different where people have been trying to get individuals that may have a tolerance, as an example, to something, so they're thinking about using corals that are heat tolerant to put into areas where bleaching is a problem or, let's say, northern quolls that have a natural disposition to avoid cane toads.

If you can introduce or favour those in the population, you're essentially accelerating natural selection in a sense and firing those individuals that might be beneficial in a conservation sense. So, that's sort of what Gene Drive is all about. So, there is potential there, but I should say that, you know, in terms of pest management, yes, it's hard to imagine eradicating those cats, foxes and rabbits at the scale because of their huge distributions and reproductive potential, but we can do things at a local scale, so as an example, whipping warrens for rabbits can be very effective in controlling their local impacts.

And in the case of cats and foxes, obviously, there's, you know, fencing, there's poisoning and so forth, but probably one of the ones still under appreciated is maintaining habitat complexity. So, if we can preserve habitat better through reducing overgrazing, through better fire regimes and so forth, it may mean that animals can persist in the presence of cats and foxes, because they've still got some way to run and hide, right?

And so and we have evidence for that from certain research that's showing that, you know, in areas after fire, cats and foxes can hunt more effectively and find native marsupials, so if we can conserve a habitat better, then maybe we can have those invasive predators there still, but their impact will be dampened.

Yeah. I had no idea that because everyone thinks that pet cats are an issue, if they don't like cats or dogs, it's like you, keep your cats inside, they're a massive issue. And it's like, well, actually there's something like 29 million feral cats in Australia that are the real population eating, you know, a billion animals a year or whatever it is, right?

Yeah. So, that number has been revised now that there were some very high numbers, it's now feral population of cats ranges between, I think, it's about two to six million.

That's better. I prefer that number.

Still a lot and that variation is to do with rainfall, so if you have some series of good rainfall years, cat numbers we will build up based on, you know, eruptions of other mammals, but during drought periods, which we have just come out of, at least some parts of Australia, cat numbers are much lower, but the point is that cats occupy 99.9%, basically, of Australia. There's really nowhere where feral cats aren't.

How the hell have they done so well in places like the desert? That's what I always wonder where this is an animal that's obviously from parts of Europe and Asia. How have they done so well to exist in the Australian outback?

Yeah, it's a great question. I mean, they are just such amazing generalists and they're able to aid a huge range of food and they don't need to drink, is a big thing. So, physiologically, you know, they are able to get away without drinking water, and that's interesting, because that's also part of the reason why Aboriginal people are actually quite good at hunting them in Central Australia, because although they don't need to drink, physiologically they're almost kind of on the edge and Aboriginal people can literally run them down.

They wear out very quickly. Now, if he tried to run down a dingo or a fox, you'd want to be a pretty good runner because they'll run and run, particularly dingo, they'll run all day like most dogs can. But cats can't do that because they're sort of physiologically more on that edge.

And they're more ambush predators, right?

Exactly. They're not pursue predators like a dingo is, which would happily chase after a kangaroo for a long distance. A cat can't do that. But yeah, it is remarkable that they managed to occupy so much of Australia and impact on so many wildlife species.

So, can you talk a bit, shifting gears, obviously, to bushfires about why Australia is so synonymous with bushfires ecologically, environmentally, at least in the past? And where that's going and obviously tie that in with this year's bushfires.

Yeah. So, I guess there's a few things there. I mean, fire is not uncommon in Australia and many of our plants and our ecosystems, in fact, rely on fire. But the really important point to bear in mind is that fires are now changing. And so we are seeing more regular fires, we are seeing more extreme fires, and we're seeing plants that even are reliant on fire now being negatively affected by.

So, Alpine Ash as an example, it needs fire to germinate, but if you have a fire in it in a short amount of time following a previous fire, so let's say 10 years or roughly, it kills all those young saplings that have come from that fire in the previous one. And so unfortunately, we're now seeing that because of climate change and increasing temperatures drying out of landscapes and droughts and so forth, we're seeing more frequent fires. And that means that even previously resilient fires, sorry, resilient species to fire are being being affected by that.

And so, we saw an example also about, of course, last year, unfortunately, and in Victoria too, where wet rainforest in southeast Queensland as well as in Victoria, which really should never burn, burnt. And that's because it got really dry for the drought and fire managed to penetrate, and often the fire gets into rainforest that means those plants often die and they may never come back because they may be invaded by a drier plant species and become a woodland.

And so we're seeing conversion of habitats from one thing to another. And of course, we also have overlaid on that huge change in fire regimes associated game with displacement of Aboriginal people by Europeans, you know, roughly 20, 30 years ago. Now, of course, there are some areas where indigenous fire practices persist or have been reinstated.

So, in parts of the Western Australian desert, with the Martu people, obviously in northern Australia, there's a lot of work going into fire regimes and there's more interest and desire to try and do similar in south eastern Australia as well. But there's a lot of different things at play, but these latest fires that we've had in Australia since winter, ironically, up here...

September, right? Or even earlier.

Yeah. Because some people have tried to frame these fires as the 'Black Summer', but it's nothing to do with being black and it's certainly nothing to do with summer. You know, these fires have actually started in winter last year in large areas across Australia and importantly in biodiversity hotspots. So, you know, in the rainforest forests, south east Queensland and northern New South Wales, the Stirling Ranges of Western Australia, parts of Tasmania, rain in Victoria, the Blue Mountains, World Heritage Area.

You know, South Australia, of course, with Kangaroo Island, really important biodiversity hotspots have all been burnt and in many cases quite severely, and I've been involved myself in a couple of emergency meetings with The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Victoria to try and get scientists together and to say, well, ok how bad is this? And what should our response be? And it's pretty grim.

I was going to ask, with indigenous burning, how would two ecosystems look different where one is managed by indigenous people and one isn't? What are the sort of the biggest differences there?

It's really hard to generalise and I think a lot of what we know about, you know, fire regimes and indigenous people comes from northern Australia. And although I did mention the Martu in Western Australia where, you know, often their burns are a bit more patchy and less severe. So, as an example, in northern Australia, if you have your burns happening at the end of the dry season, when it's very, very dry, those fires can be very intense, very hot and very large.

And they can really remove a lot of habitat and potentially kill some plants and convert woodlands more towards grasslands. If you burn areas towards the end of the wet season and you have what's called a cooler burn, those burns tend to be patchier and less widespread.

And so that creates more of a mosaic type habitat which breaks up fire, the next time fire comes around, but also provides a range of different habitat types, which is useful for a whole range of species, and it also means you're not losing things on the ground like logs as well as tree hollows, which so many species depend upon, and those hot fires will often get rid of, and so that's the kind of thing, potentially, we see with a more traditional indigenous type fire regime.

But I wouldn't want to generalise too much because Australia is a big place and we see a traditional fire regime in a wet ash forest is very different to one in a tropical savannah or an open, arid landscape.

So, it is really all about maintaining that complexity for animals to be able to have a range of different, you know, whether habitats or within a habitat or environments that they can go out into, and, you know, live through those events. If there's a bushfire that can move out and then come back later, repopulate that area, but is that a big problem with this year's fires, is that they were so extensive that it sort of wiped out complexity. So, now you just have this homogenous environment of just burnt areas.

That's right, so that's been the really big problem in some places, including East Victoria, where we've had massive fires, and I've seen some of the imagery and it's quite, quite confronting that you can see literally thousands of hectares that are just burnt and there's nothing there. And so, and bear in mind, you know, the severity and the scale of it.

So, it's those two things together said that if you're an animal, you know, there's nowhere to go, and there's also very hard for you to recolonise that area, too, because it's such a big burnt landscape. There's just no little pockets left. And again, when you think about things like logs and tree hollows, in some cases it takes decades or over a century for those things to form in a tree, and so you don't just get them back overnight.

So, even if the grass come back and shrubs come back, if you're dependent on hollows or tree logs and so forth for breeding and so forth, you may not be able to survive there anymore because that's critical habitat attributes are no longer there. And so that is a real concern that we've had that sort of impact at this scale that we've had.

So, what are some of the species that are in trouble now? And could you talk about that a bit? Because I know there's over 100 species now in the news, at least going around, saying that they're potentially facing extinction as a result of just these bushfires. You know, they've been pushed even further. Can you discuss that and give us your thoughts?

Yeah. So, there's a range of spaces that we're worried about. And a lot of the work today really has been focussed on vertebrates and mammals, birds, reptiles and so forth. There's work that's been done on plants, too. Now, there's a lot less known, of course, about invertebrates, and that's a whole other story. But in terms of some of the, I guess, high profile species that have been mentioned, Kangaroo Island dunnart has had a very large proportion of its habitat burnt, I'm trying to remember if it's 80 or 90%, it's a very large portion.

I think it was 80%, I was reading in an article today. It was huge.

So yeah, it's huge. So, we're really worried about them, and there are ground dwelling small marsupial which is perfectly primed to be eaten by feral cats on Kangaroo Island. So, in the absence of habitat cover. They're a worry, although they've built a fence now on Kangaroo Island to exclude cats and try and help recover that species. The Long-footed Potoroo in Victoria is a real worry. So, that's more of a wet forest type species in the far east of Victoria. Its entire distribution and that has had very large areas of its habitat burnt.

Now, encouragingly, there has been camera trap footage showing Potoroos after the fires, which is great to see, and we're always keen to see good news and happy stories in conservation wherever we can, so there is hope, but you know, a large area, that species habitat has been burnt. And we know, of course, from the theory, that the smaller species distribution becomes and the more fragmented it becomes, whether it's due to habitat loss or fire or whatever it might be, the more prone that is to extinction in the future as well, because, you know, a population that's small may get genetic problems.

It's also more affected by random events. So, you know, you have a flood or another fire or something. You know, if you have five individuals and they will go, that's a problem. Whereas if if you lose, you know, 10 individuals out of 5000 individuals, okay, it's sad for those individuals, but it's not a really big problem for the population as a whole.

So, fragmented populations are a problem. The Regent honeyeater is another one that's discussed. So, there's I think, if I'm right, about 400 adults of those left in the in the wild and much of its breeding habitat has been burnt. So, you know, that's a migratory bird that's already up against it. And so, that's just three vertebrate examples.

And I've mentioned, of course, all the plant species that we're worried about and particularly ecosystems. So, you know, huge areas of rainforest have been burned and they may now be gone forever, which I find quite confronting. You know, as a father of two children and I think the environment, I like nothing more than taking my family out into the environment and seeing wonderful things and to think that those habitats are potentially lost to us forever. And when you think about, you know, the Great Barrier Reef also having large areas are now dead. To say that sort of happening in my lifetime over a pretty short period of time is deeply disturbing and confronting.

So, maybe you should have been a vet?

Maybe, ironically, it would have been easier being a vet.

Well, that's it. Yeah, I know. It's one of those things, The Great Barrier Reef really depresses me sometimes because it seems like it's so out of your control with the salinity in the ocean and carbon dioxide, it seems like even if you were, Australia was to change everything, it's not going to be able to change the salinity in the ocean around the Great Barrier Reef, I imagine.

Yeah. I mean, this the acidity and the increasing temperatures and the runoff, all of those things are affecting the reef. I think for me, what concerns me is that, you know, when I was doing my undergraduate degree in Townsville and then sort of mid, mid to late 90s, the reef was still a wonderland. It was this incredible place. And, you know, we're only talking about sort of what is at 25 years later and large chunks of that are now dead or dying.

And there's bleaching events happening as we speak and about to happen, and so, you know, that's that's a really short amount of time and sort of, I guess, I never thought in my lifetime I would be confronted by these really big changes in the environment. I always read about them, I always we had warnings, of course, from climate scientists, from ecologists like myself, that these things would happen, but when they actually happen, it's really confronting.

And more important than that, I think when they happen but there's still not a huge response from our own government, from international governments to do what we need to do to stop more of this happening, that's what worries me, because I thought, oh, well, the reef's dying, but hey, maybe it will be now that we actually change.

No. And then I thought, well, maybe after these fires like this will be the big moment where we change, and so far, no. So, I guess I sort of question as a conservation scientist as well as a dad of, you know, kids, like when will it be enough? When will we actually go? We can't keep going on like this because the predictions are, of course, that this is just the beginning. You know, things could get worse, a lot worse.

So, what is your expectations of the future? Not just necessarily the world, more specifically, I guess, Australia. What do you think's going to happen in terms of our ecology and our environments with with climate change and other things that are affecting it?

Yeah, look, it's a great question and one that I think about a lot. I think it really depends on a couple of things. If we continue business as usual, then there's going to be dramatic changes and we're going to lose a lot of a lot of species. And, you know, there will be winners and losers like there always is with change.

But, you know, species that, of course, are not very resilient to changing climate like the Barrier Reef, like the rainforests that are impacted by fire or salinity, by acidity and increasing temperatures and so forth. They're going to potentially be lost to us forever. Now, if we do change, then things could look really, really differently.

Now, there's already going to be changes because we'd had such a huge impact on the environment. And even if we do really rein in our unsustainability, it's still going to take time for that to manifest and really put the brakes on what's happening. So, it is really hard to know exactly how bad things would get.

And I try to remain an optimist about, you know, that we will actually make some pretty big changes in terms of divesting from our fossil fuels rapidly and urgently and also even lifestyle choices about, you know, how much meat do we eat, fast fashion. And a lot of people don't realise that one of the biggest impact is on the environment in the world is fashion, and particularly fast fashion.

So, a lot of attention is put on meat and on flying and so forth, and rightly so, but fashion, as an example, also it doesn't get a lot of attention. So, if we could really change our own individual choices about those things, then there's potential huge gains that we can make quite quickly. And I hope that actually occurs.

So far, it hasn't happened to the degree that it needs to. But yeah, to know how much the ecology and the environment is going to change is really going to be dependent on those two parts of it could go down. One is don't change things very much and let the chips fall where they may and predictions show that's not going to be very pleasant for any of us and potentially, at some point, could lead to our own, you know, existential crisis or, ideally, listen to the scientists, listen to the experts and make some big changes and make them fast.

So, to finish on a positive note in your research, are there any animals that you've been studying in Australia that are really thriving in the times of human beings that are doing really well?

Yeah, well, a really nice example of that, I think, is that the Southern Brown Bandicoot and a PhD student, Sarah McLachlan, of mine in our group, she's done some really neat work around Melbourne that is shown Southern Brown Bandicoots living in amongst the suburbs and around. And part of that, and that's an endangered species and a species that, again, is typically heavily affected by things like feral cats and foxes, and it turns out they're doing reasonably well in those urban areas because there is still some habitat left.

And so, they're also living in what you would otherwise think is pretty degraded habitat. So, there was a very large swamp in the south east of Melbourne called the Koo Wee Rup swamp by indigenous people. And that's been largely cleared and modified and turned into agricultural land and also now increasingly urban residential land, but basically sort of narrow linear remnants that are invaded by BlackBerry and also to other weeds, but that's fine in terms of habitat harbour for Bandicoots.

And so, those Bandicoots have adapted to quite a novel system and they're even doing things like going into people's backyards and eating out of dog bowls. So, they are an example of an animal so far, at least, that has managed to adapt to a pretty dramatically different habitat to the one they formerly lived in. But I guess the point there is, yes, that's a good news story, but again, if we push these things too far, then maybe even the Bandicoots won't persist, and of course, they shouldn't have to do that.

You know, there should be places left in the world where, you know, plants, animals, etc can persist without heavy influence from us. And I don't mean us being absent either, because there's been this kind of, I think, unhelpful attitude that, you know, National Park should be free of people, but if we break down connection between people and other species, that actually probably is a disservice to conservation. So, it's really more about learning to live with nature in a way that's more compatible and sustainable, but not separating the two.

It's pretty difficult, isn't it? Because you want nature to survive, but in the world's capitalist kind of society, you have to monetise nature in order to give it a reason to survive. And I mean, as a sort of side note, I know that a lot of people hate hunting in places like Africa, but there was a story, and I've forgotten exactly where it was, where they had a big safari set up or a big place where there were all these animals like elephants and rhinos and lions, and they had hunting set up there where tens of thousands of dollars were paid per hunt.

And that ended up getting shut down and the moment it was shut down, all of the poachers came in and killed everything. And so, it's one of those things that sucks, but at the same time, you can't have to work out, yeah, if we just leave national parks alone and don't touch them, no one's going to give a shit because they're not going to go there to enjoy them and you have to find out a way of making them enjoyable but sustainable, right?

Yeah. And I think really that highlights what most conservation biologists these days are aware of and trying to improve on, that any issue is a social issue and a cultural issue. And unless you address social and cultural issues and conservation problems, you're not going to have much success. And in terms of monetising things, yes, of course, people do want to put a dollar sign on how much things are worth.

And there's a whole literature around what people call ecosystem services and how much, you know, certain things are worth risking a hammer. How much is a forest worth in terms of purifying the air and and stopping erosion? But I think that also misses the point too, in that there's multiple values of species and we need to do a better job of conveying those values in terms of, you know, species have a right to exist.

They have an aesthetic beauty, they have aesthetic value, they have cultural value. You know, obviously, dingo is an example, have cultural values to indigenous people, in some cases, so, you know, there's multiple ways to look at the value of something, but I think absolutely, if we want to conserve species, we have to address the social, cultural, economic and environmental dimensions.

Well, associate professor of wildlife ecology at Deakin University, Euan Ritchie, thank you so much for joining me. Where can people find out more about you and your work?

Probably the easiest way is to find my website, which is just, and also, if you just search Euan Richie Deakin University, I'm also on Twitter and I've written, I think, it's 50 plus Conversation articles now. So, if you want to read about some of our work in there as well. So, they're the main ones.

And you're looking for students. I know that a lot of academics are quite often looking for students, so feel free to give a plug if you are.

I'm more than happy to talk to prospective students if they want to potentially join our group. And I'm also just happy to talk to people in general about the environment and conservation. So, if you're interested in conservation and some sort of stuff that I do, please just drop us a line.

No worries. Thank you so much once again, Euan.

You're welcome. Thanks for the opportunity.

Alright. So, that's it for today, guys. Thank you so much once again for joining me on the Aussie English podcast. I hope you have a ripper of a week and I'll see you next time. Peace!

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