Eric Vanderduys and April Reside have been studying a rare bird whose fate could soon be sealed by mega-mining projects. Here they tell us an alarming story about how human avarice can drive extinction right before our very eyes.
The Black-throated Finch is an attractive little bird that survives in just a tiny geographic area. Unfortunately, much of its known geographic range is about to be destroyed or greatly degraded as a result of rampant mining and other land uses -- including one of the world's biggest mining projects.
Given the great perils they pose for this rare bird, is there any chance that these projects might not go ahead?
Sadly, not much.
Death of a thousand cuts
The Black-throated Finch lives in just a small pocket of habitat in central Queensland, Australia.
We all know Australia has a bad record of losing species. Many have already vanished, and roughly 1,700 more animal and plant species are listed by the Australian Government as being seriously threatened.
Where threatened biodiversity is adversely affected by development, so-called 'biodiversity offsetting' is a common tool applied to reduce the threat.
For instance, if a mining company was going to destroy a thousand hectares of key habitat for a species, it might pay to protect a thousand hectares of suitable habitat elsewhere.
But there's theory and then there is reality. The extinction of a species usually results from a fatal snowballing of interacting threats. First a few populations vanish. Then more populations and perhaps entire subspecies disappear.
Finally, only a handful of individuals remain. If they collapse entirely, it's often not for a single reason but for a number of reasons -- death by a thousand cuts.
In a recent paper, we modeled the distribution of the Black-throated Finch (Poephila cincta cincta) using bioclimatic data and Queensland's Regional Ecosystem classification.
We overlaid existing and exploratory mining leases on the known and modeled ranges of the bird. Shockingly, around 60 percent of the bird's range falls within active or exploratory leases.
Last stronghold under threat
The main stronghold for Black-throated Finches is the Galilee Basin, which contains extensive coal reserves.
The Basin is a hotspot of proposed and existing coal mines, including the massive Carmichael (Adani) mine, which would involve an investment of over $16 billion. This is in addition to a number of other mines (Alpha, Kevin's Corner, China First, China Stone, and South Galilee) that already exist in the region.
Collectively, these mines will span nearly 1,700 square kilometers, most of which are open-cut mines where the land is essentially nuked for coal extraction.
And tragically, our analyses suggest that the massive Carmichael mine sits right on top of the "best of the best" habitat for Black-throated Finches.
The Black-throated Finch is in serious trouble. Its historical range is collapsing as agriculture, grazing, and mining expand apace.
Altogether, 80% of its original range is gone.
Proposed offsets are unlikely to save the finch. To be 'true' offsets, one would need to take an area that is presently unsuitable for the finches and somehow make it suitable. That's highly unlikely to happen.
The most reliable way to avoid further declines of Black-throated Finches would be to protect the precious areas of its prime habitat that still survive.
Sadly, given the voracious push in Queensland for mega-mining projects like Carmichael, this doesn't look very likely to happen.
Not only would the Carmichael Mine be one of the world's biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions because of the massive carbon emissions its coal would produce.
But it could well be one of the final nails in the coffin for a charming little bird -- whose chirpy calls once rang out across much of eastern Australia.