15 Dec 2017
Don’t Ruin Christmas: mining threatens wildlife haven Christmas Island
Home to a unique and rich diversity of life – including five bird species found nowhere else – charmingly-named Christmas Island is one of nature’s greatest presents to Australia and the world. But new phosphate mining proposals threaten devastation. The Australian Government must choose to conserve this incredible biodiversity hotspot.
Around 1,500 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland, the limestone-capped peak of an ancient volcano rises 5000 metres from the floor of the Indian Ocean. Closer to Java and Singapore than to Australia, Christmas Island has never been connected to any other landmass. This isolation fostered the evolution of a truly unique diversity of life. The island is home to 254 wildlife taxa and is recognised as a Key Biodiversity Area critical for conserving life on earth.
Internationally renowned for its spectacular annual Red Crab migration (rated as one of the top ten wildlife experience by Sir David Attenborough), Christmas Island is also home to five bird species and six subspecies that breed nowhere else on the planet. Out of all of them, the island’s two endemic seabirds are the most threatened.
One of these birds, the Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti, is a curious and distinct seabird of ancient lineage – and, with its long ungainly wings and massive beak, it has been likened to the pterodactyl. Abbott’s Boobies are now only found on Christmas Island. But past clearing for the phosphate mine has left them less than 25 square kilometres of forest on the island to breed.
Similarly, the Critically Endangered Christmas Frigatebird Fregata andrewsi only breeds in one small area on the Island. It has the questionable honour of being one of the most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered species—up there with the rhino and the dugong. Both species may have fewer than 2,500 pairs left.
Island biodiversity is notoriously fragile. And nowhere exemplifies this better than Christmas Island, which is now considered an ‘extinction hotspot’.
Of the five species of mammal native to Christmas Island, three are now officially extinct, with the demise of the last Christmas Island Pipistrelle being one of the world’s best documented extinctions. This small bat was last recorded on the 27th of August 2009 during a failed rescue mission. The Christmas Island Shrew has not been seen since 1985, and is also presumed extinct. The only remaining indigenous mammal on the island, the Christmas Island Flying Fox, is also at risk of extinction. Likewise, four of the five species of reptile have been wiped off the island, with two now surviving only in captivity. It is also probable that seven plant and invertebrate species are extinct.
The clearing of forests for phosphate mining and the associated impacts of invasive species – introduced by lax quarantine – are the greatest threats to the island’s unique wildlife.
Mining activity has already cleared 25% of the island’s forest
An expert panel commissioned by the Australian Government reported in 2010 that ‘Christmas Island has undergone severe ecological stress from activities associated with mining that has cleared over 25% of the island area at one time or another.’
Put simply, the mining impact is irreversible and wholesale.
The ecosystem cannot recover from mining, which strips off the island’s phosphate-rich soil for export. Even if the intention was to replace the soil, doing so would do more harm than good by introducing further invasive pests. And it is not by chance that Abbott’s Booby are first in the firing line. The boobies nest on top of the tallest trees – and, of course, the tallest trees grow on soils rich in phosphate.
The impacts of mining are not restricted to the site of excavation. Even where the nesting trees are spared, boobies still suffer. The disruption of the primary forest canopy through mining exploration and tracks exposes booby nests to strong winds and creates turbulence which can eject the eggs and chicks. Furthermore, mining also exposes the remaining pristine forest to invasive species that degrade the ecosystem for all native wildlife.
Even beyond Christmas Island the mining harms ecosystems. The phosphate stripped from the island feeds oil palm plantations in South East Asia, aiding large scale rainforest destruction.
The mining activity is so short-sighted that, in a rare show of agreement, Australian Governments of all stripes have committed to transitioning away from mining on the island numerous times.
In 1987 Prime Minister Bob Hawke stopped the clearance of rainforest for mining, allowing only old spoil dumps to be reworked. The aim was to facilitate a soft transition away from mining for the island. Yet instead of planning a way out, a decade later Christmas Island Phosphates was angling unsuccessfully for new mines, and applied to clear more primary rainforest.
Even if the mine was approved, it would only provide an extra five years’ worth of income
In 2005, then Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of the Environment and Heritage, Greg Hunt, stated: “We need to build a long-term, sustainable future for Christmas Island. Even if the mine was approved, it would only provide an extra five years’ worth of income, and it is critical that we learn from the mistakes [of phosphate mining] on Nauru [Island]. There are large parts of Christmas Island that are certainly a biological ark.”
Fortunately, then Environment Minister, now Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull rejected the mining proposal in 2007.
Unperturbed, in 2010 Christmas Island Phosphates even took the next Government’s Environment Minister, Peter Garrett (of ‘Midnight Oil’ fame), to court over his decision to prevent further mining.
Three decades on, and after the likely extinction of another five vertebrate species, Christmas Island Phosphates is at it again. In 2016 application for phosphate mining exploration was put before the Australian Government. BirdLife Australia is taking a stand, making it clear in a formal submission that approving the exploration will destroy the habitat of a suite of birds already at high risk through habitat loss. These include the globally Endangered Abbott’s Booby, Vulnerable Christmas Boobook Ninox natalis, and the Near Threatened Christmas Imperial-pigeon Ducula whartoni and Christmas White-eye Zosterops natalis.
Also at risk are unique Christmas Island subspecies of White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus, Grey-capped Emerald-dove Chalcophaps indica, Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus and Island Thrush Turdus poliocephalus.
Mining approval would not only do the island’s wildlife a disservice, but would also deprive its human population of a long-term economic future. Christmas Island Phosphates squanders the chances of the island to grow as a destination for high-end nature tourism at the doorstep of a fast-growing Asian market. In the global economy, tourism is responsible for one in every ten jobs, with ecotourism being its fastest-growing segment. Christmas Island has all the attributes of a premier nature tourism destination: outstanding wildlife, coral reefs, tropical rainforest, beautiful beaches and exquisite diving experiences. Yet mining directs investment away from this sustainable industry. And, worse, it destroys its main tourism assets.
The Australian Government has the power to stop this latest proposal. Because the exploration is on Crown Land, Christmas Island Phosphates needs Government approval to proceed. A decision on the exploration permission is imminent.
Earlier this year BirdLife Australia declared Christmas Island a Key Biodiversity Area in Danger and campaigned for the Government to rule out mining once and for all. We are now turning up the heat with a petition calling on Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to follow through on his 2007 convictions and put the future of the island beyond doubt by saying no to further mining on Christmas Island.
International pressure will play a key role in this campaign, since both Christmas Island Phosphates and the tourism trade rely on overseas business. Sign the petition and tell the Prime Minister of Australia: #DontRuinChristmas. Commit to safeguarding this unique rainforest by ending mining on Christmas Island and funding invasive species control.
How many more species need to go extinct before Australia steps up to its international obligations and saves the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean for future generations?
Read more about BirdLife Australia’s campaign and sign the petition here.