Saturday, 25 March 2017

Cash for Night Parrot


Night Parrot. Pic by John Young
The full version of a story published in the 25-26/03/2017 edition of The Weekend Australian:

Cashed up nature lovers will pay $25,000 a head to join luxury “glamping” trips to outback Queensland in the hope of a glimpse of the world's most mysterious bird.

Revelation of the plan has angered bird enthusiasts who face a two-year jail sentence or $353,400 fine if they enter the same area planned for what is emerging as a novel and potentially lucrative ecotourism venture.

The row erupted as news emerged this week of two newly discovered populations of the critically endangered night parrot 2000km apart.

The naturalist John Young generated international headlines when he photographed a night parrot in the Pullen Pullen Reserve, south-west of Winton, in 2013. It was the first time the enigmatic bird had been photographed, and the first confirmed record of a live night parrot since the 1880s.

The 56,000ha reserve was excised from the sprawling Brighton Downs cattle property when it was acquired by Bush Heritage Australia early last year.

John Young in the field
The Weekend Australian was criticised by the expert Night Parrot Recovery Team for revealing the whereabouts of the secret site last May. Critics argued that the parrots would be threatened by disruptive visits from an invasion of birding “twitchers” eager to spy a night parrot.

The Queensland Government took the unprecedented step of issuing a conservation order banning unauthorised entry to the private reserve, with hefty penalties for transgressions.

At the time, Environment Minister Steven Miles lumped twitchers together with egg-collectors as a “great threat” to the species, adding: “Before the area could be opened to bird-watchers, we must have more information about night parrots and take care of their conservation requirements.”

However, very few birding trips have been made to the remote area. Meanwhile, Bush Heritage has struggled with a $1.5 million mortgage it was forced to take out to fund the Pullen Pullen acquisition.

Wealthy birders have been emailed by intermediaries to determine their interest in paying $25,000 a head to join a camping trip to Pullen Pullen with the chance of seeing a night parrot, regarded by the Smithsonian Institution as the most mysterious bird in the world.

Participants could look forward to a glamour camping or “glamping” experience among the rugged, spinifex-clad slopes of Pullen Pullen near the reserve's southern boundary with Diamantina National Park. The first of the six-person trips is scheduled to take place in July.

The fee includes $5,000 for a permit and costs, with $20,000 donated to Bush Heritage to fund its night parrot program.

Night Parrot habitat at Pullen Pullen
Participants are told the visits are backed by the 15-member Night Parrot Recovery Team and BirdLife International, a peak overseas birding body.

Recovery team chairman Allan Burbidge, a WA Department of Parks and Wildlife scientist, said the team had not backed any such plan.

BirdLife Australia chief executive Paul Sullivan said BirdLife had no involvement in arranging visits to Pullen Pullen.

Alice Springs ornithologist and birding guide Mark Carter said the site being used as a private resource for tour operations raised questions about whether the Queensland Government's special protection measures were an abuse of process.

Any such tour would prove that birders are not an existential threat to the bird as was claimed,” Mr Carter said.

Australian birders are owed an apology for the way they've been treated throughout this whole affair.”

Australia's leading authority on parrots, Joseph Forshaw, said he was mystified by the preoccupation with alleged threats to the night parrot from bird lovers.

Authorities need to be vigilant against feral cats, foxes and wildfire rather than bird-watchers,” Dr Forshaw said.

Bush Heritage Australia chief executive Gerard O'Neill denied that glamour camping was on offer but conceded that donors would be visiting Pullen Pullen.

Across Australia, Bush Heritage works with individual philanthropists who are prepared to commit to significant and long-term support of our conservation reserves and programs,” Mr O'Neill said.

Any trips to Pullen Pullen Reserve for donors, who have helped us to establish the reserve and continue to support our efforts to protect the night parrot, will be planned carefully in consultation with leading ornithologists and conservation biologists to minimise disturbance to birds.”

Environment Minister Steven Miles said no approvals had been sought for commercially-based visits to the reserve.

Any unauthorised activities conducted on the property resulting in disturbance to the birds may be a breach of the Nature Conservation Act and therefore any ecotourism activity proposals for this area, commercial or otherwise, would be highly scrutinised,” Dr Miles said.

Dr Miles revealed this week that John Young had discovered a new population of night parrots at Goneaway National Park, 50km east of Pullen Pullen, bringing to at least 10 the number of sites now known for the species across a 350km arc of arid country in Queensland's channel country.

At the same time, a group of birders photographed a night parrot and several others were heard east of Broome in Western Australia.

Bird-watching is emerging as one of the world's most popular hobbies. Surveys in North America and Europe reveal about 20 per cent of people report regular, positive interactions with wild birds; bird-watching is overtaking gardening and fishing as the most popular past-time in some western countries.

BirdLife Australia has more than 10,000 members and 50,000 supporters; many are cashed up and prepared to pay handsomely for the opportunity to see rare species. Thousands more Australians belong to smaller groups or pursue their hobby privately.



FURTHER COMMENT:

It is perfectly legitimate for Bush Heritage Australia to raise funds for its Pullen Pullen program. BHA insists it is repaying the charity of donors by hosting visits; it's a thin line between that and a commercially based ecotourism venture.

No argument either way. The problem lies with the fact that anyone not in the BHA tent faces a $353,000 fine or 2 years in jail courtesy of a Queensland Government interim conservation order over the reserve. BHA, the Night Parrot Recovery Team, the state government and even BirdLife Australia have all been singing from the same song sheet. They regard the birding community as a menace. Birders are described as "vigilantes". They have been lumped in with egg collectors as a major threat to the Night Parrot.

Yet the opposite is true. The prospects of the Night Parrot surviving are hugely enhanced by excursions by birders over the vast expanse of the bird's former range. The recent discovery of the Night Parrot in the Western Australian Pilbara is testimony to that. Yet in Queensland, more than 250,000 ha of existing and potential Night Parrot habitat - the whole of Pullen Pullen and the eastern half of Diamantina National Park, covering an area many times greater than known sites - have been declared off-limits to birders. The government is signalling yet more areas will be out of bounds following last week's discovery of the parrot in Goneaway National Park. It's overkill, it's not necessary, and it's counterproductive.

For more than three years the recovery team and BHA refused to release playback of the parrot's call to help facilitate further searches. They did so only recently, and I suspect reluctantly. That is a travesty. While they sat on the calls, great tracts of potential Night Parrot habitat were subjected to mineral exploration and other potentially harmful activities.  

BHA needs the birding community on side for fund-raising, but its handling of the matter is doing the organisation no favours.  

  

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