Scientists use fire to save endangered birds on the fringes of adelaide
10 February 2017
published by http://www.abc.net.au
Australia — Planned burn-offs, which play an important role in protecting
lives and properties from summer bushfires, are becoming increasingly critical
to the survival of a rare bird species in South Australia.
The chestnut rumped heathwren has a subspecies which is found only in the Mt Lofty Ranges around Adelaide, and is considered endangered.
Fire ecologist Kirstin Abley said her team had only recently discovered fire was a vital part of maintaining the tiny bird's habitat.
"Initially we didn't realise they had a preference for recently-burnt habitat, and we thought they preferred longer unburnt habitat," she said.
Ms Abley said her team at Natural Resources Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges were now using prescribed burns to ensure sections of the landscape developed new, thick undergrowth the birds adored.
"We're burning small patches of that habitat and hopefully generating some that is optimal for them, so their numbers can increase because the food and shelter is better," she said.
But it's a tricky balancing act for the ecologists, who need to protect both lives and properties, as well as other species with different preferences.
Lives and homes a priority over threatened species
Ms Abley said while the ultimate responsibility of fire ecologists was safeguarding lives and property, it was nice when the work dovetailed with helping wildlife.
"Clearly in a bushfire, protecting human life and property is the highest priority, but there are often cases where we can also protect the environment," she said.
The Sampson Flat bushfire in January 2015 caused a local extinction of chestnut rumped heathwrens in the Mt Gawler forest.
But Ms Abley said in slow-burning bushfires that unfolded over days, ecologists would work with the Country Fire Service to ensure sections of the environment were protected.
"It might just be moving the location of a control line or backburning from a different spot, so you get the same outcomes battling the bushfire but also a lesser impact on the environment."
Adelaide ornithologist Marcus Pickett said the chestnut rumped heathwrens were "not an easy bird to study".
"They are shy and secretive and live in densely vegetated and sometimes very steep terrain, so they can be tricky to find," he said.
"They are very capable mimics, and I've heard them mimic a dozen or so different bird species in quick succession."
Fire can wipe out species while creating habitat
Mr Pickett described fire as both an advantage and disadvantage for the species.
"Large-scale bushfires can eliminate populations, but carefully planned deliberate burning can regenerate habitat values in otherwise unsuitable or poor habitat areas," he said.
The scientists hope planned burn-offs can be used to help saved the chestnut rumped heathwren.
"We don't have the full picture yet of what the habitat requirements are for the heathwren, or what other threats to them might be," Ms Abley said.
"This does seem to be one knowledge gap that we're starting to fill, and hopefully we'll build on that and the heathwren numbers will stop declining and start increasing."
In total, they are willing to pay US$643.5 million (RM2.8 billion) a year — large enough to make a “substantive impact on the problem” if used for land conservation and restoration, the researchers state in a paper published in February’s issue of the journal, Environmental Research Letters.
The paper’s authors, Yuan Lin, Lahiru Wijedasa and Dr Ryan Chisholm, wrote: “Our results indicate that Singaporeans experience sufficiently negative impacts of air pollution (in) their day-to-day life, or personal health during haze periods, that they are willing to trade off personal financial gain for improvements in air quality.”
Transboundary haze is a long-standing problem in the South-east Asian region, largely caused by the drainage of carbon-rich peatland as well as companies and farmers in Indonesia using fire to clear land.
Singapore experienced its worst haze episode in 2015 from September to November, with the Pollutant Standards Index hitting hazardous levels.
Since then, Indonesia has renewed efforts to prevent fires, although a state of emergency was declared last month in Riau province over forest and land fires.
The economic impact of haze pollution here has been estimated using cost-benefit analysis before, but the researchers said that the figures could be an under-estimate because they exclude impacts — such as non-hospitalisable health effects — that are difficult to infer from economic data.
The 2015 haze episode was estimated to have cost Singapore S$700 million (RM2.19 billion) in losses.
The NUS researchers surveyed 390 people in public areas from November 2015 to February 2016 on their willingness to pay, should the Singapore Government be able to guarantee good air quality year-round.
The participants, from various age and income groups, were given options ranging from 0.05 per cent to 5 per cent of their annual income, after they indicated if they were willing to support such a haze mitigation fund.
The average person’s willingness to pay was an estimated 0.97 per cent of his/her annual income.
However, about three in 10 respondents were unwilling to pay even the minimum option of 0.05 per cent of their annual income.
Wijedasa said that one of the solutions proposed for the haze problem is payments for ecosystem services.
“This could take the form of richer nations aiding better land management and restoration by making regular payments.
“Indonesia has estimated that it needs US$2.1 billion to help restore two million hectares of peatland in (the country). They have currently only received US$50 million from Norway and US$17 million from the United States.
"Could this shortfall be filled by Singapore (and other countries in the region)?”
Tan Yi Han, who is not involved in the study and is co-founder of non-governmental organisation People’s Movement to Stop Haze, said that the findings are helpful and “should motivate the Singapore Government to spend on measures to prevent haze, such as a subsidy on certified sustainable palm oil, as well as aid to support peat restoration and protection efforts in Indonesia”.
His organisation’s survey last year found that more than nine in 10 respondents were willing to pay more for certified sustainable products to help mitigate the haze, Tan said.
Most were willing to pay 5 to 10 per cent more.
Consumers game to chip in to avoid any haze include Steven Lim, who is in his 40s and self-employed. How much he is willing to contribute would depend on the amount needed to make an impact.
“Maybe S$10? Multiplied by many individuals, it would be a lot,” Lim said, preferring that the money goes to the Indonesian government.- See more at: http://www.themalaymailonline.com/money/article/singaporeans-willing-to-fork-out-1pc-of-income-to-ensure-no-more-haze#sthash.CRhWHQHj.dpuf