Threatened species pushed to brink by urban sprawl

More than 13,000 hectares of urban koala habitat has been cleared in the past 20 years. Photo: Doug Gimesy, supplied by the Australian Conservation Foundation
More than 13,000 hectares of urban koala habitat has been cleared in the past 20 years. Photo: Doug Gimesy, supplied by the Australian Conservation Foundation

Thousands of hectares of threatened species habitat has been cleared around Australia's largest cities in the past two decades, with urban sprawl threatening the last refuges of some species.

More than 20,000 hectares of threatened species habitat in the nation's 99 biggest cities has been cleared since the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act was introduced, new analysis from the Australian Conservation Foundation shows.

Cities are home to, on average, three times as many threatened species per hectare as rural environments.

Nearly half (46 per cent) of nationally-listed threatened animals and 25 per cent of nationally-listed threatened plants can be found in these 99 cities.

Sydney is home to 80 threatened species, Hobart has 29 and Canberra-Queanbeyan has 24.

For 39 threatened species, cities are the only place they are still found. This includes the Frankston spider orchid, which exists in only one place on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula, where there are only 40 plants.

This report shows that contrary to common perceptions, Australian cities and towns "are in fact ecologically very important because they provide critical habitat for some of Australia's most threatened species", the foundation said.

However urban sprawl has led to threatened species habitat destruction in 98 of the 99 cities examined.

Queensland was the worst state for land clearing, with 12,923 hectares of urban native species habitat destroyed in the past 20 years. In NSW and the ACT, a combined 3960 hectares was lost.

Brisbane was the city where the most threatened species habitat was lost, with 6162 hectares cleared. In Newcastle-Maitland, 503 hectares of habitat were lost while in Canberra, 192 hectares of threatened species habitat had been destroyed.

The Grey-headed flying fox, koala and critically endangered Regent honeyeater were the species worst-affected by urban land clearing.

Around 13,522 hectares of Grey-headed flying fox urban habitat has been destroyed since 2000. The species has declined drastically in the past 90 years, going from a population of many millions in the 1930s to just a few hundred thousand today.

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Approximately 13,052 hectares of koala habitat has also been cleared in urban areas. Koala populations in Queensland and NSW are estimated to have fallen by 42 per cent in the past 20 years, with further urban sprawl, logging and agriculture the main threats to the species' ongoing survival.

But while cities and towns were part of the extinction problem, they could also be part of the solution.

In Newcastle, the Hunter Wetlands was transformed from a rubbish-filled transportation corridor to an internationally-recognised ecotourism site.

In Canberra, the Friends of Mount Majura and ACF Community Canberra groups are helping to restore degraded grassy woodland at a nature reserve known as 'The Fair'.

"While the proximity of threatened species to people in urban areas can create conservation conflicts, it can also create conservation opportunities given the availability of people, technology, resources and funding that are sometimes difficult to achieve in remote areas," the foundation said.

This story Extinction crisis hits Australia's sprawling cities and suburbs first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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