"We're Confronting A Whole Raft Of Species About To Go Over The Extinction Cliff"

When the first boats full of European settlers landed ashore on the sandy beaches of Australia, they arrived much like the speeding asteroid which ended the dinosaurs, triggering an extinction event which shows no signs of slowing. In a little over three centuries since, at least 100 animals have been wiped out entirely due to humans and other invasive species, leaving countless others on the brink of existence.

Conservation efforts have been mounted in recent decades to try to stem the tide for those hard-hit species, but victories have been few and far between. Now, in a desperate bid to preserve native wildlife, scientists say that it may be time to let others go.

"I'm afraid to tell everybody we're in a terminal situation. We're confronting a whole raft of species about to go over the extinction cliff," says David Bowman, professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania.

Even in wildlife reserves where millions are spent to shield fragile ecosystems, the shockwaves are being felt all the same. In Australia's two largest protected areas, Kakadu National Park and the Great Barrier Reef, biodiversity has been in steep decline, with some organisms suffering losses of up to 95 percent.

With 1,500 species under threat, money and manpower devoted to their conservation are stretched so thin as to be virtually feckless. Reallocating those resources toward specific species and ecosystems, experts suggest, may be the only way of saving them -- even if that mean effectively marking the rest for death.

But choosing which species live and which are allowed to go extinct requires accepting that the very existence of some organisms is more important than others.

"If you put in one corner a rare butterfly and in another corner a Tasmanian devil, I have to say as a conservation biologist, that the Tasmanian devil is more important -- it's a top predator, it's at the end of an evolutionary lineage, it's charismatic, it's a mammal (and) we can't afford to lose such a thing," says Bowman.

Those endangered species numbering just a few hundred individuals, despite vigor with which conservationists have kept them alive, would be the first to be allowed to die out under the proposed strategy change.

"We call those living dead or zombie species because the likelihood of them persisting for any reasonable amount of time in the future is pretty low," says ecology professor Corey Bradshaw.

"So we've already basically resigned those species to some form of extinction within the near future."

Those who have devote their lives to protect the most critically endangered animals, like the 300 or so volunteers fighting to save the few hundred orange-bellied parrot in existence, say that such plan goes against the fundamental principles of species conservation.

"This is something we value as part of our natural heritage, something we want our children and grandchildren to see in the future," Debbie Lustig, of the Save the Orange-Bellied Parrot Campaign, tells Australian Broadcasting Company.

"We can't afford not to spend the money on any of them."

Regardless of the emotional aspect of picking winners and losers in terms of protecting species, Jeff Smith of the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office says it may be the only way.

"These are difficult choices. Many of the gains that were made in this area were very hard-fought and people don't want to give them up and I completely understand that. But the focus on threatened species seems doomed to failure. We need to be looking at key species, species that are able to drag ecosystems and other species up by the bootstraps."

Bradshaw and others argue that ideology should take a backseat to pragmatism, and that the focus should be preserving species and ecosystems most important to human habitations -- meaning pollinating insects should be more protected more than colorful birds, like orange-bellied parrots.

Australia's Environment Minister Greg Hunt, whose job it is to direct conservation funding, says that the goal of his efforts is to "help as many species as possible," though he does admit that some will inevitably be lost in either case.

"Anybody who tells you that they will save all species I think is not being honest."

Given the rate of species decline globally, the tough debate underway in Australia will soon be a much broader one. As the threats of climate change and an ever-expanding human population continue to put pressure on more and more ecosystems, conservation work will increasingly become more about building an arc than today's strategy of patching holes in the dam.