budgarigars on a branch

Zero Extinction Target in National Parks: Meaningless and Unrealistic

Is a zero extinction target realistic? Not if you know anything about evolution or why people set targets in the first place.

A zero extinction target is a good slogan. It sings of hope and justification and a ‘vote for me’ vibe. It also feeds the unique human requirement for dominion—our job is to lord it over nature.

And we are so good at this control that we even believe we can prevent extinction. If we were around when the dinosaurs copped it—we weren’t—we would have saved them. 

Before returning to our naive belief in our god-like capability, let’s look at the target.

Resolutions for the future

Each new year, many of us set a resolution for the future. We put ourselves in the frame to lose weight, get fitter, read more books, and save money.  It is often a long list of self-help aspirations. 

But the descriptors—lose, get, more, save—are all relative. They can only apply in context, as does any numerical measure of aspiration or goal.

If I resolve to get to 81kg body weight on the bathroom scales when I get up in the morning, there is no information on the likelihood of achieving such a target in the next 12 months.

If I am a 6ft 6 professional basketballer or a 5ft 10 clinically obese fifty-year-old with a heart condition, then 81kg is impossible or a stretch target at best. In the United States, 36% of adults have obesity, and another 33% are overweight, so plenty of people are in the latter stretch category.

Luckily I am reasonably healthy for my age and currently tip the scales at 85kg, so there is a realistic chance that I could shed 4 kg in a year.

A resolution to achieve a weight loss of 4 kg sometime in the future is achievable for me, even if I have admired that target for a long time, typically from a distance. It is sensible to make the resolution. I am motivated to diet, fast and exercise more. And because the target is achievable, I am not messing with my head.

Ask a 100 kg sixty-year-old to get to 81 kg, and he will likely laugh and pour another beer.

persons feet on the bathroom scales
Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash

In the United States, 36% of adults are obese, and another 33% are overweight.

A realistic target

Recently, the state government of NSW, Australia, set a target of zero extinction of native wildlife in the state’s national parks estate, the first time an Australian jurisdiction has set the goal.

“Just as we have a net-zero emissions target, we now also have a target of zero extinctions for our national parks, and are aiming to improve and stabilise the on-park trajectory of threatened species by 2030…” 

Matt Kean, NSW Environment Minister, September 2021 

This declaration made many conservationists happy—one of the few times a zero target can win votes for a politician.

The problem is the context.

The NSW national park estate—a national park even though these areas are gazetted and administered by the state, not the federal government—includes 880 parks and reserves, covering over 7 million hectares of land, roughly 9% of the land area in NSW. 

The good news for a zero extinction target is another 80 million ha of land across the state, where wildlife species can hang out and repopulate the parks.

7 million ha is a lot of lands, the same area as Ireland and a little more than Sri Lanka, a land mass big enough to have 16 species of endemic mammals.

This is enough land, then.

Plus, the 880 parcels of land are in a matrix of primarily agricultural land where some species living in the parks can also persist. Roughly 44 million ha of NSW is grazing land operated by sheep or cattle farmers on altered vegetation but relatively close to native—fewer trees but plenty of native plant species among the grasses, forbs,  and shrubs. 

If any politician wanted to set a zero extinction target, then the NSW environment minister is better placed than most. 

Only zero extinction is impossible. 

There has been no point in the 3.8 billion years of simple cells (prokaryotes), 3 billion years of photosynthesis, 2 billion years of complex cells (eukaryotes) or 1 billion years of multicellular life a time with zero extinctions. 

It has never happened before because nature accepts losses as part of the process that allows gain — it is how evolution works, extinction is inevitable.

Isolating parcels of land selected randomly from a much larger contiguous area and deciding that no extinction will happen in these parcels is bizarre, naive, reckless, ignorant… and a host of other descriptors of stupidity.

A zero extinction target is meaningless.

The fossil record and modern evolutionary biology based on genetics confirm what Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace surmised: some types of organisms fail. They go extinct while the fitter types persist, at least for a while.

Extinction is an inevitable consequence of natural selection.

And because the environment is in flux with disturbances everywhere, being fitter today is no guarantee that the type you represent will be fit tomorrow or in a decade.  

It is safe to say that a zero extinction target is pointless from the logic of evolutionary theory.

Then there is the practical matter. 

How, for instance, will anyone decide if one of the hundred or so vertebrate animal species we might have some data on or the thousands of invertebrate, plant and microbial species that we know very little about, have become extinct or are indeed still present in NSW parks.

None of NSW’s 880 parks and reserves has comprehensive biodiversity inventories, let alone monitoring programs, even for the at-risk icon species.

If we don’t know what species are present in the parks, how can we say if any are extinct?

We cannot.

Researchers and park staff cannot confirm or deny any claims the Minister has made.

view of rugged country in a NSW national park where the Minister set a zero extinction target
Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash

Science cannot tell you how many species are in this habitat because no species inventories are complete

A zero extinction target is set anyway

As each new year ticks by, we reflect and set more resolutions.

No matter whether they are relative or need a solid context, or are abandoned within a few weeks. It is the process of reflection that helps.

The Minister sets the zero extinction target to demonstrate that the government recognises a biodiversity loss issue and is doing something about it. At some level, there is a response to environmental degradation.

This is the only saving grace of most conservation targets. They allow some reflection on the problem of how to feed and house everyone without wrecking nature. 

We cannot stress how crucial such reflection can be.

Nature is the source of human success. The ecosystem services nature provides are the foundation of all food production systems, and keeping them is the only chance to feed everyone well.

It is a shame that this essential requirement to maintain nature is twisted to be the preservation of endangered species in national parks, but that is better than unconstrained exploitation. 

What sustainably FED suggests.

There is no need to take the Minister or the zero extinction target too seriously. Like most resolutions, it is the thought that counts.

Zero extinction target reeks of command and control over nature. Don’t worry, the politicians say; our policy can beat back a billion years of evolutionary history because we are strong and all-powerful.

This  delusion of dominion is the worst bullshit. But presumably, it works for our leaders; otherwise, why do it?

The real work is in figuring out how to proceed towards the target. It is easy to say I will lose weight and get to 81 kg; it is something else to work out how I will get there when my body sits stubbornly at 85 kg, no matter what I eat. 

Here is what we suggest.

Next time you hear politicians come up with nonsense targets, ask them how the species that they will single-handedly save from extinction got into the national park in the first place.

Hint. It replaced another one.

Hero image modified from photo by David Clode on Unsplash


Mark is an ecology nerd who was cursed with an entrepreneurial gene and a big picture view making him a rare beast, uncomfortable in the ivory towers and the disconnected silos of the public service. Despite this he has made it through a 40+ year career as a scientist and for some unknown reason still likes to read scientific papers.

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