The commercial use of Australian native wildlife could provide the
next boom in live exports, adding new meaning to the term 'primary
producer'. The farming and export of cockatoos, freshwater turtles
and magpie geese are already in the planning stages in the Northern
Territory where the commercial utilisation of wildlife is enshrined
in policy. By
Sold down the river or saved from extinction? Commercial use of
wildlife could be one way to ensure the survival of threatened
Photo: Deborah Bisa
The plan could not only present landowners with a lucrative income
but also with a wildlife conservation strategy. The scheme places a
dollar value on native animals—an economic incentive for the
landholder to keep wildlife habitat undamaged and look after
species on their properties rather than destroying or ignoring
A Senate Rural and Regional Affairs Committee Report, published
last month, called for trials in the commercial utilisation of
wildlife and a review of export laws. "It has got the potential for
a far better use of Australia's northern rangelands than grazing
cloven-footed animals," declared Committee member, former NT
Senator Bob Collins. "It could be an important regional income
contributor while having really positive environmental effects."
The report concluded that wildlife residing on 93 per cent of the
Australian landmass is unprotected, lying outside established
national parks or sanctuaries. That means the overwhelming majority
of species are vulnerable to feral animal predation and habitat
destruction initiated by landholders. Commercial utilisation of
wildlife targets those landowners.
This is already the case in southern Africa where landowners
benefit economically from wildlife through tourism, export sales,
selective culling and even big game hunting—all in the name
of conservation. After decades of plunder, many species are making
dynamic population come-backs in countries like Botswana, Namibia
and Zimbabwe, where landholders have been entrusted with wildlife
wellbeing. At CITIES (Convention of International Trade in
Endangered Species) 1996 international conference, those three
countries were rewarded for their increasing elephant populations
by the organisation officially sanctioning a tightly controlled
export trade in ivory.
The report recognises that lucrative markets for Australian
wildlife exists overseas, but the current federal legislation
prohibits commercial wildlife export—except if they're
already dead. It is under these cadaverous regulations that
kangaroo meat, emu products, bushtail possums and crocodile skins
are currently exported.
The NT's crocodile management plan provides a blueprint for
commercial utilisation. In 1971, after decades of over-hunting,
saltwater crocodile numbers in the NT were depleted to an estimated
5000 animals. That's when shooting the animal was banned and
biologist Dr Graham Webb designed a management plan to restore its
Today, over 10,000 croc eggs are harvested from the wild annually,
with landowners paid for each egg taken from their property.
Animals are farmed for skins to the value of $3 million per year in
exports yet the wild population continues to grow at a rate of 5
per cent a year to a current total estimated at 70,000. So many
fully grown adult crocodiles now patrol NT watercourses that late
last year the NT Government sanctioned test harvest trials allowing
the export of wild skins.
Pastoralists on Carmour Plains station initiated a trial harvest
along with Aborigines from the Maningrida community, whose harvest
accompanies a successful egg gathering and incubation operation.
The NT Government also backs communities interested in crocodile
big game hunting, potentially the most valuable commercial wildlife
scheme. A hunter taking a single animal can pay $25,000 to an
isolated community otherwise dependent on government largesse.
"If we can do it with crocodiles we can do it with other species,"
said Parks and Wildlife NT assistant director of conservation
management, Dave Lawson." These are valid alternatives. We should
try them. I'm not saying they all will work. All we're saying is
this deserves a valid test."
Lawson's department has already initiated management plans for the
sale and export of red-tailed black cockatoos and draft management
plans for magpie geese and long-necked turtles.
The Senate committee also believes a live export trade will
undermine the flourishing illegal trade. It calls current state and
federal laws regulating the use and protection of native species,
"confused and inconsistent."
Export proponents argue that a controlled legal trade would put the
poachers out of business. Opponents contend that the commercial
utilisation of wildlife remains an untried conservation scheme.
That is a view recognised in the Senate report. A major committee
recommendation is to set up an experimental management trial to
examine the economic viability and conservation prospects of the
commercial formula. The trial would see scientists and landowners
working on a 2000 square kilometre marginal pastoral property,
funded by the Natural Heritage Trust.
They would identify commercial species, turning off all they could
on a sustainable case-by-case basis. According to Dr Webb, the
rewards could radically change land use nationwide. "Let's test
it," he urged.
"What if we found you can put vast areas of Australia aside and
make them earn more income through wildlife than you can through
The Commercial Utilisation of Australian Native Wildlife: Report of the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is available from AusInfo. ISBN 0642267812