Essay Endangered World Our Future

This essay is an investigation into Australia’s efforts to protect its endangered species from extinction. It focuses particularly on the effectiveness of the federal legislation dealing with species officially recognised as being under threat, but it also takes a broader view. How effective, for example, have been state and federal efforts to preserve biodiversity by setting aside national parks and nature reserves? Why are species still becoming extinct, even though tens of millions of dollars are being spent to protect nature? And what more needs to be done to prevent extinctions?

As I researched these issues, I grew increasingly dismayed at how haphazard and generally ineffectual our efforts at preventing extinctions have been. In the twenty years since federal legislation was enacted, just one vertebrate species has increased in number sufficiently to be taken off the threatened list: the saltwater crocodile. Dismayingly, I also discovered that many conserv­ative state governments are rolling back protections for nature, and that the worst are using aspects of our natural heritage as political bargaining chips. Yet some organisations and initiatives are making progress in protecting species – even bringing some back from the brink of extinction. Using them as models, I outline how private–public partnerships could conserve Australia’s biodiversity effectively, and at a modest cost.

Australia is not alone in experiencing an extinction crisis. Many of our regional neighbours are in danger of losing their most distinctive species. I believe that Australian expertise could play a leading role in biodiversity protection regionally, and that a federal fund should be established to facilitate this.

Writing this essay has made me look at my society anew. Eighteen years ago I wrote The Future Eaters, which raised some of the issues discussed here. How much progress has been made towards sustainability since then? To answer that we need to revisit this essay’s epigraph. When I first read Sir Keith Hancock’s words, they seemed to leap from the page and sear themselves on my mind. Was ever a national narrative so perfectly distilled? Hancock’s words capture the trajectory of all settler societies since the dawn of civilisation, but are particularly apt for Australia, where the mismatch between land and people was so profound, and the experience is still so raw.

I’ve spent my life in a country which looks upon its fine tricks and hustles of nature as some of its greatest achievements. We crow about them on the front pages of our newspapers, and look upon some as inexhaustible sources of wealth. But in reality we Australians are mere squatters in our own country. That is all we ever can be until Australia has completed its experiment. Moreover, our tenure in this land is limited not by some governor’s pleasure, but by the rate at which we destroy its natural riches, including its species.

The great majority of Australia’s plants and animals are found nowhere else on earth. Many are the result of 45 million years of separate evolution, for that is how long Australia has existed as an island continent. As a result, many Australian species are precious repositories of unique genes and evolutionary strategies, living in unique ecosystems. They are important not just in and of themselves, but because they provide Australians with the best means we have of engaging nature and listening to our land.

By learning about our homeland and adjusting our beliefs, values and practices, we can achieve great things. Indeed, over the past half-century, significant progress has been made in both caring for the Australian environment and in placing our culture on a more sustainable path. Yet in recent years things have begun to go backwards, as the concept of practical, measurable environmental protection has been widely neglected – even abandoned in some instances. I believe that two things – a lack of awareness of the severity of Australia’s environmental problems, and the increasingly divisive, ideologically driven nature of our politics – are primarily responsible for this.

Although Australians profess to love their wildlife, there is an ever-growing sense among many of our politicians and business leaders that the natural world is something to be traded off – just another item in a ledger, or a criterion to be partially satisfied.This was highlighted to me recently in Kalgoorlie. I was talking to a group of school kids, one of whom asked me why trees were being knocked down to make way for new mines. When I responded that it was happening because our society values money more than Australia’s natural habitats, an employee of a major mining company objected that this was not true. So I asked him what he would do if he discovered Uluru was rich in gold ore. After a moment’s thought he replied: “Come up from underneath.” In other words, hollow out the country: compromise its natural treasures. On a scale far beyond mere mining, that’s what we’re doing today.

In aspiring, as they increasingly seem to do, to little more than the accumulation of wealth, some Australians have cultivated an apparently benign indifference to the natural world. Moreover, among some on the right of politics there’s a growing hostility towards anything “environmental,” which extends even to the science that supports wise management. As a result some Australians have begun to shoot the messenger, by cultivating a deep hostility towards all scientific expertise. Although this is most evident with respect to climate change, it affects all aspects of environ­mental and even medical science (think of vaccines) and is occurring just as a new wave of animal and plant extinctions is gathering pace.

Scientific research must set the compass for us when it comes to preventing extinctions. Hence I will focus in this essay on the science of biodiversity conservation – specifically on the conservation of species – and the political and social changes that must occur if we are to preserve our unique plants and animals. Many ideologies travel under the banner of nature conservation nowadays, including animal rights, landscape preservation and even resource management. All are arguably important in their own right, but none should get in the way of protecting species.

That is a rather unfashionable view at present. Many scientists and land managers prefer to focus on ecosystem protection rather than the fate of individual species, and this has led them to give priority to setting aside representative samples of each of Australia’s ecosystem types in reserves and national parks. Of course this is important work, but I will argue that in and of itself it will not result in biodiversity protection. Instead, experience shows that unless such areas are carefully managed, the outcome for biodiversity is likely to be very poor indeed. That’s why I believe that species, as well as ecosystems and landscapes, must once more become an important focus of our conservation efforts.

By way of illustrating how scientific research can guide conservation, and in order to show how science works, I will discuss in detail an interpretation of Australian prehistory published in my book The Future Eaters. It put forward the hypothesis that the first humans to colonise the continent swiftly hunted its large animals to extinction, and that this altered Australia’s vegetation, nutrient cycling, fire frequency and intensity, and even climate – changes that have great relevance for land management today. Some palaeontologists and experts in dating technologies set about testing the hypothesis almost as soon as it was published. As a result spectacular progress has been made in understanding Australia’s prehistory. But it took until 2012 for a truly rigorous test to emerge. The key was an elegant – indeed beautiful – piece of science which I’ll explain in detail later. It does not prove the Future Eaters hypothesis correct – for, contrary to popular opinion, it’s impossible to prove anything in science. But it does represent a major step forward, and was a strong factor in prompting me to write this essay at this time.

Most of Australia’s biodiversity consists of invertebrates such as insects and spiders (which make up 97 per cent of all animal species), and plants. Yet here I’ll be focusing on the fate of vertebrates such as wallabies and bandicoots. This is in part because large creatures such as mammals play a disproportionately important role in seed and spore dispersal and nutrient recycling, which are vital “ecosystem services.” Nor will I write much about threats such as mining and agriculture, simply because, while agriculture was an important threat in the past, and mining can have a locally catastrophic effect, today there are greater threats.

Tim Flannery is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Future Eaters, Throwim Way LegThe Weather MakersNow or Never and Here on Earth. In 2007, he was the Australian of the Year. He is currently Chief Commissioner of Australia’s Climate Commission.

© 2011


To orient students to the plight of endangered species and to help them understand and gain perspective on human issues that continue to endanger species and threaten our global environment.


This lesson is part of a two-part series on endangered species. The first lesson, Endangered Species 1: Why Are Species Endangered? introduces and explores the various issues and problems faced by endangered species globally. The second lesson, Endangered Species 2: Working to Save Endangered Species, may be done sequentially or independently, since it focuses less on the science and more on the actual work of saving endangered species.

The earth is comprised of many different life forms, including plants, animals, humans, and other organisms. These various life forms are highly interdependent and have formed important systems that continually reshape the planet's landscapes, oceans, and atmospheres.

Booming human population growth over the last two centuries has put, and continues to put, many of these life-sustaining systems out of balance and in serious jeopardy, endangering many of the plant and animal species that human beings directly and indirectly depend upon for long-term survival.

Bigger human populations naturally mean increases in human activities worldwide, leading to changes in landscapes, oceans, atmospheres, and the path of human history. For example, as noted in the benchmark of this lesson, human activities like reducing the amount of forest cover, increasing the amount and variety of chemicals released into the atmosphere, and intensive farming, have changed the earth's land, oceans, and atmosphere. Some of these changes have decreased the capacity of the environment to support some life forms. (Science For All Americans, p. 46.)

It's important that students begin to realize that human populations and activities will continue to grow and to threaten the earth's habitat and capacity to sustain life, putting once flourishing plant and animal species on the ever-increasing endangered species list. The National Wildlife Federation (NWF) forecasts that the human population is slated to reach 8.5 billion in 2025, up from 5.2 billion in 1990. Right now, the NWF asserts that plant and animal species are disappearing at least 1,000 times faster than any other time in the last 65 million years. It also claims that habitat loss is accounting for almost 75 percent of the extinctions occurring now. While statistics become more and more staggering, human beings seem to be doing very little to address these long-term, disastrous issues.

Students should come to understand that the earth and its various species will continue to be threatened and that most of humanity is either uninformed or seemingly too preoccupied to care about the slow and dying animal and plant species that help to give everyone life. As a result, students at this level should begin to become aware of environmental policies and issues and of the critical role that science education can play in helping us save ourselves now by saving other life forms.

By the 6–8 grade level, students should have a general understanding of how life forms like plants, animals, and humans can cause changes in their surroundings. As with the study of earthquakes, volcanoes, and floods, it is important to grab student's general interest in these areas and lead them toward the scientific aspects behind these threats to endangered species and the highly dangerous, yet less obvious, less dramatic, long-term threats it poses for present and future generations. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 71-73.)

Research in the area of earth-shaping processes reveals the following misconceptions that may need to be addressed in the course of the lesson: “Students of all ages may hold the view that the world was always as it is now, or that any changes that have occurred must have been sudden and comprehensive. The students in these studies did not, however, have any formal instruction on the topics investigated." (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 336.)


As a way to stimulate interest and focus students for the lesson, hold an open class discussion to find out what students already know about endangered species. Ask questions like the ones below. Accept all reasonable answers in an effort to create a broad-ranged and free-flowing discussion of students' ideas and feelings about this ongoing, global dilemma.

Ask students:

  • Is the world a safe place for all animals and plants? Why or why not?
  • What does it mean for a species to be endangered?
  • What, if anything, do you know about this topic?
  • What animal or plant species do you know of that are endangered or extinct?

As a way to direct their attention to the benchmark for this lesson, ask questions like these:

  • Why do you think species are endangered?
  • How do you think or feel about this ongoing global problem?
  • What, if anything, happens when an animal or plant species becomes extinct?
  • How do you think this situation can be realistically improved?
  • Why should it be improved?

Next, have students use their Save Our Animals student esheet to explore Endangered and Threatened Species. This resource will provide students with a basic orientation on the plight of endangered species, humanity's role, why protection is important, and how they can help in this vital cause. Encourage students to take notes on key facts and statistics in order to answer these questions as part of an open class discussion.

Ask students:

  • What is the difference between a threatened species and an endangered species? (Endangered species are those plants and animals that are so rare they are in danger of becoming extinct. Threatened species are plants and animals whose numbers are very low or decreasing rapidly. Threatened species are not endangered yet, but are likely to become endangered in the future.)
  • Why should we protect endangered species? (Some possible answers might include: (1) saving species preserves ecosystems: species are an important part of what make up ecosystems; maintaining healthy ecosystems ensures a healthy biosphere; (2) practical uses of species: when species become extinct, we may lose a potentially valuable product; and (3) aesthetic reasons: when species become extinct, we lose objects of fascination, wonder, and beauty.)
  • As a human being, how do you think or feel about this ongoing global and potentially disastrous problem? (Accept all answers. Encourage students to support their feelings and views with examples.)
  • How can you as an individual help this cause? (Possible answers might include some of the following: (1) support zoos, nature centers, nature reserves, or botanical gardens; volunteer money, time, and ideas; (2) start a native plants garden or use a spot in your backyard to attract wildlife; (3) avoid buying ivory, snakeskin belts, alligator boots, and other products made from endangered animals; and (4) keep learning about plants and animals; share what you've learned with others.)


Now that students are focused and well oriented about the ongoing threat to endangered species, they are ready take on the special Save Our Animals project for this lesson, a hypothetical global campaign which has chosen your class to create posters of endangered species to promote greater environmental awareness worldwide.

First, read The 21st Century Save Our Animals Project student sheet, which follows a Webquest-style format. To summarize, students will be required to further research the plight of endangered species; create a poster of a selected animal; and present their poster, research, and advertising approach to the class. Students will need the Endangered Species Profile student sheet to complete their research on their chosen animal species.

There are two primary Web sources used for this project. The first is Species At Risk, which will provide students with a broader and more detailed orientation to endangered species. Please note the following about this site and its use:

  • This site focuses on Canadian species. Before students research the site, emphasize to them that, although the site has a Canadian focus, its information on endangered species is global. The global problem is students' primary focus.
  • After teams finish reviewing the site, it is highly recommended that you hold an open class discussion to review what they have learned and answer any questions they might have on how it pertains to their project. Have them address these questions:

    • What are the primary ways in which species are endangered? (These include habitat destruction; human disturbance; garbage; hunting, fishing, and harvesting; killing the food supply; global warming; and introducing alien species.)
    • Which of these are caused by human activities? (All of them.)
    • What does this mean for the future of our planet and future generations? (Accept all reasonable responses. Encourage students to elaborate on their answers, using examples.)
    • What facts, statistics, or ideas made the biggest impression on you? Why? Think about how you may apply this to the posters and profiles you will develop. (Accept all reasonable responses. Encourage students to elaborate on their answers and use examples.)

The second resource, Animal Info - World's Rarest Mammals, lists over 30 endangered mammals from which teams can choose one as a basis for their posters and profiles. This also will be their primary source for research on their selected species.

Optional Resources:
Depending on the level of interest, time availability, and Web access, you may choose to allow your students to research endangered species and their poster animals beyond the two resources above. For this effort, you may recommend that they do general searches online or look at the resources highlighted in the Extensions section.


Teams are given the option of using either downloaded pictures of their animal or drawings they create for their posters. Since students vary in their artistic abilities, it is important that you let them know that they will not be graded on which option they choose, but on the overall creativity of their design, layout, message, and impact. Content and impression are the keys in this exercise.

At the end of their poster presentations, it is important to review and reinforce what students learned about endangered species. Through discussion or a brief summary, students should walk away from this lesson with solid orientation on:

  • the nature and causes (human) of species endangerment
  • the kinds of present and future threats that species endangerment and extinction is causing
  • the virtually unstoppable impending danger of human population growth and its seemingly unavoidable impact on the environment
  • the ongoing problem of informing or connecting with the public about the danger it is causing to the environment
  • the kinds of resources available and solutions needed to begin leading a life of informed environmental responsibility


Follow this lesson with the second lesson in the Endangered Species series: Endangered 2: Working to Save Endangered Species.

Science NetLinks lessons Food Webs in the Bay and Yellowstone Wolves can be used to extend the ideas in this lesson.

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