‘The Room Is Getting Crowded With Elephants’

Celtic League Mannin Branch Secretary Allen Moore ruminates on a recent holiday in Australia and climate change:

“I recently read a shared article about the affect of climate change on koalas on one of the two Facebook pages of the Climate Change Coalition Isle of Man. Some people like to use the expression “elephant in the room,” including on one of those Facebook pages. In the case of the marked decrease in Koala numbers, the “elephant in the room” is economic growth. Climate change is only exacerbating the problem. Of course, economic growth is also causing climate change. This room is getting crowded with elephants!

I have been concerned about climate change for many years. However, climate change isn’t the only reason for the recent marked decrease in koala numbers in Australia. The results of economic growth have also reduced the habitat available for koalas, as I saw during a recent visit to the country.

I was in Australia in August, staying with an ornithologist friend in Port Macquarie, New South Wales. I had seen koalas around the corner from his house on a previous visit, but one of the first things that he told me when I joined him this time was that koalas were now critically endangered. Well, he used much stronger language to describe the situation with the species. Like me, he is passionate in his concerns about the future of this amazing planet. Housing and infrastructure developments continue to fragment the habitat of koalas and many more species which are less well known but just as fascinating.

The Australian government is as obsessed with growth as our lot in Tynwald are. Australia’s equivalent of the Eastern Sector Plan has the aim of cutting down large sections of forest and replacing them with sprawling housing developments. It might not say that on any official document, but that is what happens. I saw the effects both at ground level and while flying from Brisbane to Port Macquarie and then onward to Sydney.

There are hundreds of species of eucalyptus trees in Australia, but koalas only eat the leaves of a few of them. The natural forests of Australia are not ‘monocultures’, so koala food trees are interspersed with others which have leaves which they cannot digest. Thus, koalas often need to climb down to the ground to move from one tree to another. In recent years very wide roads have been built down the eastern side of Australia, including through koala habitat at Port Macquarie. This means that if a koala wants to go from one tree to another, as it did before the road was constructed, it sets off walking across the road, meaning that many get killed by traffic. With many housing developments having been built in koala habitat, dogs also attack and kill koalas. I was also shown where metal fences have been put up round gardens and indirectly provide barriers to the movement of koalas, which can climb wooden fences but not metal ones.

During my visit to Port Macquarie the forest fires started in areas inland of the town. Forest fires are natural hazards in Australia, although many are now started by people, whether accidentally, through carelessly discarded cigarette butts or campfires which have not been put out carefully, or deliberately. The cyclical El Niño climate events are also natural, but these have been exacerbated by climate change. The winter rains did not come this year, and the land is so dry. Many water courses dried up, too, and some of the remaining wetlands which I visited to witness the amazing birdlife have since dried up. The birds and other wildlife have nowhere to go. The fires generally occur in the southern summer, but when I was there it was mid-winter. On some of the days when I was there it was cold, with strong winds exacerbating the cold and fanning the flames. Wildlife doesn’t stand a chance in these circumstances. Of course, since then many people have lost their homes and some have died in the fires, too. My friends in Port Macquarie, a town which is bigger than Douglas, have twice had to pack their suitcases to prepare to leave home if the fires got too close to the town.

Human changes to the environment of Australia have adversely affected koalas and many other native animals. Forest and other habitat have become more and more fragmented, so animals’ natural habitat is now broken up into smaller and smaller areas with large tracts of unsuitable territory in between. Not only are there the dangers to koalas when they move from one suitable tree to another, but when there are forest fires the animals have nowhere else to go. If large blocks of their habitat had been left undisturbed, the species would have had better chances of survival. While climate change doesn’t cause the fragmentation of habitat, it increases the chances of the forest fires wiping out the smaller patches of forest and all the wildlife in them. The dryness of the land and the early onset of fires are directly caused by climate change.

What governments, including that in Australia and our own, need to drop is the obsession with economic growth. As a species we need to live within our means. When climate change further kicks in, the opportunity for growth will have ceased. Vanity schemes like planting trees at Meary Veg won’t stop that. Howard Quayle and the like are fiddling while the forests burn.”

Allen Moore, Mannin Branch Secretary Celtic League (5 December 2019)

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