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Deceived by flight: Misuse of Ramsar sites in Victoria

Life in oceans, rivers and seas

“Humans have had a major impact on such (ecological) communities in the historical past, revealing how vulnerable such ecosystems are to disruption by an invading species”. Richard Leakey

Peter and Andrea Hylands

June 2, 2024

We would do well to think about what paleoanthropologist, Richard Leakey (1944-2022), had to say about life on Earth.

“Even though Homo sapiens is destined for extinction, just like other species in history, we have an ethical imperative to protect nature’s diversity, not destroy it”. Richard Leakey

In Europe our friends at Eurogroup for Animals report, conducted by Savanta in November 2023, that:

“Inhabitants of rural areas strongly oppose cruel and unjustified hunting and only 12% feel well-represented by hunting interest groups”.

“This survey clearly shows that the hunting lobby does not represent the interests of rural communities. Rural citizens across the EU demand change, they want protection for themselves and for wild animals victims of cruel, unnecessary and unjustified culling, whether it concerns wolves or other species. It is time for the EU to seriously look into this and promote solutions”. Léa Badoz, Wildlife Programme Officer, Eurogroup for Animals

We should also note that:

“More than 500 candidate MEPs have pledged to do more to protect animals at EU level should they be elected to the European Parliament in June 2024”.

So now we leave our friends in other countries, and so to Australia, where voices for nature in the public employ, if they exist at all, are few and far between. Instead the apologists and promoters of the mass killing of wildlife and destruction of ecosystems spin their wares, endlessly funded from the public purse. And so to Victoria’s Ramsar sites.

Broader context in which Recreational Native Bird Hunting (duck shooting) occurs in Victoria

"Australian mammal and bird species are the animals most directly impacted by Victorian Government policies targeted to kill them in very large numbers. Numerous other species die because of deforestation, land clearing, burning, poisoning and development, these include many species from the reptile and amphibian families”.  Peter Hylands

As well as Duck and Stubble Quail shooting, Victoria is home to the commercial exploitation of Kangaroos, the Victorian Government issues permits to kill a large range of ‘protected’ native species (ATCWs) including in State and National Parks, unprotects other native species so they can be killed outside the permit system and has a secretive Koala killing program.

“As of 25/02/2020 – 88 Australian species in Victoria were subject to control by shooting, a subset of those species (22) were further subject to control by trapping or gassing, again a subset of those on the shoot list were also subject to control by trapping and shooting, a further subset of species (12) were subject to control by destruction of eggs and nests”.  Peter Hylands

Understanding the numbers in relation to wildlife in Australia as well as we do, we can say without any fragment of doubt that Victoria’s treatment of its native species, particularly birdlife and native mammal species, is staggering in its scale and cruelty, even when compared to other states and territories in Australia.

Comments by Premiers of other states

"There is widespread opposition throughout the community to the cruelty and environmental damage caused by shooters... Evidence from previous [WA] seasons shows that injured ducks have been left to die, protected species have been shot, and fragile wetlands have been polluted by lead and cartridges. Our community has reached a stage of enlightenment where it can no longer accept the institutionalised killing of native birds for recreation”.  Media statement by Dr Carmen Lawrence (Premier of Western Australia), 3 September 1990, announcing a ban on recreational duck shooting in Western Australia
“It is time to ban the recreational shooting of ducks and quail… This is not an appropriate activity in contemporary life in the smart state”.  Peter Beattie (Premier of Queensland), 2005

Former New South Wales premier Bob Carr has written to the Victorian leader, Daniel Andrews, urging him to follow his example and ban duck hunting for good in NSW in 1995.

“I suggested, essentially, it's not a big deal”.  Bob Carr, 2019

It was of course not banned:

“The Select Committee inquiring into Victoria's native bird hunting arrangements has handed down its final report in the Victorian Parliament this morning, with the first recommendation being a complete ban on recreational duck and quail shooting on private and public land from 2024”.

1: Economic considerations

“Nature, culture and commerce are not separate things that live in a silo, they are connected in the most complex ways. The issue here for Victoria is that economic development activities should look to the future and not the past. These things have environmental and economic consequences that are enormous. The time taken, the scale and scope of duck shooting in Victoria and on Ramsar sites has a very negative impact on the possibilities surrounding regional development. It is increasingly shameful, given environmental circumstances, that such a minority of individuals engaged in such a cruel and destructive activity can shape the future of large parts of regional Victoria”.  Peter and Andrea Hylands

Victoria’s State finances are in a difficult place and it seems entirely inappropriate that large amounts should be spent on significant and pointless wildlife killing activities, including birdlife and the negative economic issues relating to recreational duck shooting.

Tourism Research Australia data shows that tourists who birdwatch spend around $2.9 billion in a given year. In 2021, the Victorian Parliamentary Budget Office found that Duck shooting contributed $10 million to Victoria, most of the benefit flowing to Melbourne. This does not account for climate change costs from vehicles, the fact that all equipment is likely to be imported (including vehicles, fuel, tents and other equipment), helicopter surveys, consultants, modelling and reports, costs of law enforcement, costs of the Game Management Authority, cost of public servants and politicians defending the mass killing of birdlife, costs imposed on the majority opposing the killing and losses from unrealised tourism opportunities (including from the state’s Ramsar sites) and the destruction of amenity (which is very stressful and disruptive of work and leisure) of local residents near the shooting activity.

There are significant costs which are imposed on individuals and animal organisations as they rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife, often facing heavy fines for doing so (for example, Wildlife Victoria is no longer funded by the Victorian Government, a government which chose instead to spend substantially more on ensuring duck and quail shooting continues). The general public pick up the bill for the Victorian Government’s conduct in these matters.

2: Misuse of Ramsar sites in Victoria: Missed economic opportunity

The prime economic benefit of Victoria’s Ramsar sites is not being achieved, these things are tourism, nature based tourism including the international circuit of twitchers and those interested in wildlife and other non-violent recreational activities. While Phillip Island and the Penguins are a long term and major tourism success story, Ramsar sites are in deep neglect, impacting the economic outcomes for their regions.

“The most popular reserve is the Penguin Parade, receiving over 700,000 visitors per year, over half of which are international visitors. Phillip Island Nature Parks is estimated at providing over $450 millionfor the Victorian economy annually”. Victorian Government

Asking for information about Ramsar sites in the Victorian towns (their tourist information centres) is all too often met with embarrassment as the often elderly volunteers in these centres look in draws to see if they can find any information.

“The Convention on Wetlands, called the Ramsar Convention, is an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources”. Commonwealth of Australia

Following the Auditor’s 2016 report finding that Ramsar sites in Victoria were not well managed and its government had failed to meet its international obligations to the Ramsar Convention, in 2020 VAGO released a series of recommendations.

“RECOMMENDATION 16: The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning update the Ramsar Information Sheets for all of Victoria’s Ramsar sites and implement policies to ensure that this occurs every six years, as required under the Ramsar Convention”. VAGO, June 2020

The most shocking aspect of all this is when you get to a Ramsar site in Victoria it is signed as a game reserve and there is no mention of a Ramsar site. We have raised this issue with the Victorian Government in letters and submissions, directly with politicians and so on. But nothing has been done to change, what is an outrageous capture of an important environmental and economic resource belonging to all Australians and not to a tiny minority who behave in ways which are entirely inappropriate, including showing hostility to other types of visitors interested in native birdlife.

“Important international Ramsar sites have no signage, instead the signs state they are game reserves. Signs also claim that they ‘acknowledge the Traditional Owners of this land’, these claims are disingenuous given both current use and the evident destruction and littering of these sites over long periods without remediation”.  
Peter Hylands

3: Education and Ramsar sites

"Particularly disturbing is the involvement of children in the mass killing of birdlife and the way we have been ignored when we have suggested education, and not slaughter and gun violence, would be a far more positive experience for young children. The Japanese and UN approach to education and Ramsar sites are examples I have highlighted in the past. Shockingly these positive ideas do not even receive a response, this as exciting and positive opportunities for children, are destroyed by these long outdated attitudes from your government in Victoria". Peter Hylands to the new, at that time, Victorian Environment Minister, Ingrid Stitt (no longer holds the Environment portfolio). Stitt is also the Minister for Early Childhood & Pre-Prep.

We raised the issue of the loss of educational opportunity for younger children in relation to Victoria’s Ramsar sites with then Minister Jaala Pulford and were greeted with the usual response, that is, our suggestions were totally ignored.

“From all around the world we are hearing that children are becoming more and more disconnected from nature. I am so pleased and impressed that you have such a strong interest in the environment and in the wetlands. The secretariat is trying to do more with children who are knowledgeable and active and trying to inspire those who are not yet engaged”. Dr Christopher Briggs, Secretary General, Ramsar Convention (January 2014)

We think about the activities on Ramsar Wetlands in Japan, travelling from our home in Gifu to Tsurui Village Town Hall and the Kushiro Wetlands in the beautiful island of Hokkaido to visit a Kodomo (children’s) Ramsar wetland events.

“In 2005 seven children from Japan, Korea, Malaysia and Thailand were invited to Kampala and Uganda’s COP9 to work with African children on ways in which children can participate in wetland conservation. The children wanted to take an active role in conservation measures. Here the children received a conservation award and this triggered a sequence of Kodomo Ramsar wetland events in Japan”.

It was in Uganda that the Japanese children said:

“Please be careful, this is our future, it is about us”.

Wondering how they could continue to participate in wetland conservation, the children then requested that meetings continue and raised the idea to bring together children from Ramsar sites from around Japan at special events, and thus the forums and events became reality. The children requested these gatherings because they wanted to exchange their ideas about how to protect the wetlands and their biodiversity for their own lifetimes and for future generations.

In Victoria we get this instead:

“The events on Victoria’s (Australia) Ramsar wetlands are not only crimes against nature, they are also crimes against the child. The last thing the world needs is governments encouraging gun violence from children as young as twelve years old”. Peter and Andrea Hylands

4: Breach of international agreements

"Your Government is party to a series of international agreements in relation to wetlands and birdlife and these need proper attention and compliance, including in the spirit of these agreements. I have raised these issues over and over again over a very long period with numerous Ministers in the Victorian Government. Nothing has changed". Peter Hylands to the then new Victorian Environment Minister, Ingrid Stitt
“Ramsar sites in Victoria are overwhelmingly governed by a culture and a purpose that is a very long way from the spirit of the Ramsar Convention”. Peter Hylands

Precisely no heed of international agreements is taken in these matters and we note the Victorian Government fails to mention Ramsar sites, only referring to game reserves in its correspondence to us. We need to remind ourselves that as well as your government’s obligations to the Ramsar Convention, there are other international agreements in place and to which Australia is a signatory. These include JAMBA, Japan Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (66 species covered by the agreement)/ CAMBA, China Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (81 species) / ROKAMBA, Republic of Korea Australia Migratory Bird Agreement (59 species).

We should be very concerned about the danger posed to biodiversity from extensive use of lead shot (now banned in relation to duck shooting in Victoria) still present in an accumulated form from numerous duck shooting seasons in the past. Lead shot is still used to shoot quail in Victoria and this will include in wetland systems.

Of deep concern is the widespread use of 1080 poison on Ramsar sites in Victoria. As usual we get a letter from the Victorian Government that shows they do not listen (extract follows):

“The Alan Labor Government has committed $1 million over 2 years from 2023 to 2025 to investigate the extent and application of 1080 use in Victoria to support the consideration of alternative pest animal control methods, where these are practical and effective. In Victoria, sodium fluoroacetate (1080) is used for the control of foxes, rabbits, wild dogs, and feral pigs. Pest animal control is a complex but necessary action for the protection of Victoria's biodiversity and livestock.
As you would be aware, invasive pest animals have significant impacts on Victoria's biodiversity and livestock industries. Best practice management of these pests involves the use of approved control tools, which include the use of pest animal baits containing 1080. While there are other pest control methods, none are currently available or under development that are known to provide an alternative to 1080 baits in all situations.
The Victorian Government places strict regulatory controls on the use of 1080. Products containing 1080 must only be supplied to and used by trained and authorised persons in strict accordance with the product label and the Directions for Use”. The Hon. Ros Spence MP Minister for Agriculture, 26 March 2024

5: Climate change impacts including floods and fires

Climate change issues have played a significant role in our lives internationally since 1975, when the science at that time began to demonstrate the alarming outcomes for both land and sea. The impacts of climate events for the region, including the islands of the Torres Strait and beyond, the forests, wetlands and numerous other biomes and including Indigenous lands has been very significant. We know these places well and have been present during a number of major climate events.

None of these climate disasters have had any impact on slowing the destruction of wildlife in Victoria, including duck shooting. We have plenty of evidence of this.

6: Governance: The voiceless regional resident in Victoria

The current Victorian Government takes precisely no account of the concerns of regional Victorians opposed to duck shooting, or their suffering and inconvenience.

“In regards to duck hunting (in Victoria) I can assure you that environmental conditions, waterfowl habitat availability, duck population distribution and abundance are reviewed each year to ensure hunting continues to be a sustainable recreation.” Executive Director Biodiversity, Victoria, 2020

7: Governance standards in relation to duck shooting and other wildlife killing activities

We have raised the issue of governance standards in Victoria over and over again with both politicians and public servants. One particular matter of concern is the continual reshuffling of responsibilities and Ministers (who have little knowledge of what actually goes on and are impervious to any information supplied to them). These standards and behaviours have very serious impacts on regional Victorians who appear to have neither voice, nor rights in opposing the impact of shooting in their lives. No one in the government appears to be accountable, nor responsible for what can be traumatising events and costly outcomes for residents.

These government structures that allow and enable pointless and catastrophic levels of wildlife killing need review and proper re-organisation, rather than the usual reshuffling of deckchairs, the purpose of which appears to be ensuring business as usual for the mates is not disturbed.

Below is a typical public service response (DEECA) when pointing out issues in relation to wildlife killing in Victoria. Issues include overstated population estimates, severe difficulties and costs imposed on residents of regional Victoria objecting to the killing on their doorstep, scale and purpose of killing, secrecy and prejudicial conduct, misleading information and extreme cruelty. We won’t name the public servant in this document out of respect for her.

It is rare for questions to be answered directly, the usual non answer or government strategised spin is not a proper response. So matters continue with no action or remediation to resolve, what are, very significant issues. This has gone on for many years. Information, particularly data, is now much harder to obtain. Even as the President of an old and established wildlife charity Peter Hylands was blocked from attending government meetings on wildlife issues and we have been blocked from attending media launches relating to Victorian Government wildlife initiatives. Other complainants have been sent the same letter.

“Regarding your letter of 27 February requesting a meeting with the Minister, I can inform you that the Minister is unable to meet with you at this time. I appreciate your interest relating to these matters, as evidenced by the many letters that you have sent to myself (none sent) and the Minister regarding the KHP and Victorian wildlife. Unfortunately, at this time I do not believe there is any further information that the department can provide to you on these topics that has not already been shared. Please be advised that the department will only be responding to future correspondence on matters that have not been covered previously”.

8: Impact of extreme cruelty to animal life

Wounding of waterbirds is a significant feature of duck shooting in Victoria. History tells us that other bird species are also caught up in the mass killing and wounding of waterbirds in Victoria.

Denial of cruelty is a constant issue in relation to the mass killing of birdlife (ducks are one species of many) and other wildlife. These standards are damaging to society, creating a lack of empathy and compassion for the suffering of other species. There are numerous studies internationally, linking extreme cruelty to animal life with domestic violence.

9: Impact on bird species and matters of accountability and responsibility

The annual shooting of the Blue-winged Shoveler and the Hardhead was ‘sustainable’ in Victoria until these Australian duck species were listed on Victoria’s threatened species list.

“The numbers of Blue-winged Shovelers have steadily declined since the early 2000s and the species was periodically removed, but then reinstated on the ‘game’ list. However, in 2022 their numbers had dropped to such an extent that the species was finally declared ‘vulnerable’ under the Victorian Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 – Threatened List.  Blue-winged Shovelers are now permanently protected and have been removed from the ‘game’ list”. CADS

What had been obvious for some time is that these two birdspecies were in decline but the usual spin prevailed. And yet again no one is held responsible, nor accountable for what has now occurred. Victoria is indeed a difficult place in which to create positive change and modernity.

10: Victoria is not the place to be if you happen to be a bird

The overwhelming reality is that Victoria is not the place to be if you happen to be a bird.

Between 2009 and 2018, 73 per cent of species subject to ‘control’ in Victoria were bird species with a total of 397,549 birds, of which 182,721 or 45 percent were from a range of parrot species.

We also need to remember that Authorities To Control Wildlife (ATCWs) are not the only way animals in Victoria die, so we can add another 4.5 million dead waterbirds and quail (we are being modest in our calculations) in the last ten years to the tally in Victoria because of duck shooting in the state. So all up, that is around 5 million birds were killed in Victoria for little purpose and over the ten year period.

11: Antisocial behaviour: Violence, drug taking, sexual abuse, vandalism and littering occurring on Ramsar sites and other wetlands in Victoria

In 2024, ‘enforcement' on Ramsar sites has been focussed on members of the public whose intention is watching or assisting birdlife, rather than the shooters.

In 2024 we receive reports of sexual assaults (indecent exposure) on young women which were reported to the Game Management Authority when they occurred. No action was taken and the identity of the men responsible was not recorded.

The Victorian Government states that:

“Sexual assault is both a consequence and a reinforcer of the power disparity existing largely between men, and women and children. It occurs within families and in multiple other settings and types of relationships”. Examples of behaviour that may constitute sexual assaults include indecent exposure: Someone showing private parts of their body or ‘flashing’ their genitals”.

Protecting mates: Andrea Hylands and I have a great deal of experience in Australia over many decades in relation to the attitudes and conduct of government employees and particularly so in regional Victoria The ‘he is a great bloke and a great mate and she probably deserved it’ type attitudes are a very long way from dead. What goes on at Victoria’s Ramsar sites and other wetlands is an exemplar of that.