An Australian farmer accused of partly bulldozing an internationally protected wetland -- home to thousands of migratory birds -- could face A$1 million ($820,000) fines after the government on Monday ordered an investigation.
CANBERRA -- An Australian farmer accused of partly bulldozing an internationally protected wetland -- home to thousands of migratory birds -- could face A$1 million ($820,000) fines after the government on Monday ordered an investigation. Up to 750 hectares (1,850 acres) of flood plain in the Ramsar Convention-listed Gwydir River wetland, 650 km (400 miles) north-west of Sydney, were allegedly bulldozed in April amid Australia's worst-known drought.
"It's very hard to understand how this could have happened on the sort of scale that we've seen. Everybody knew that this was the most important wetland area in the whole of the Gwydir catchment," water bird expert Richard Kingsford told local radio.
The wetlands are home to more than 225 species of birds when flooded, including colonies of rare, endangered and vulnerable water birds such as ibis and egret. They were listed under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in 1999.
In floods 10 years ago, more than 500,000 water birds flocked to the wetlands, which spread over a mixture of freehold and permanent leasehold land, managed by private landholders.
Federal Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull said he had received complaints about the clearing on the Yarrol property, near the town of Moree, and wanted to know if it breached national land-clearing laws.
"I've asked my department to investigate and report back to me," Turnbull said.
Turnbull's state counterpart, New South Wales Environment Minister Phil Koperberg, said the owners could face prosecution within weeks, although an investigation was still underway into whether they had received local permissions.
"It is potentially disastrous. The site is just so significant so as to make one wonder what on earth may have possessed the owners," Koperberg told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.
The Ramsar Convention, signed in an Iranian town of that name in 1971, protects wetlands throughout the world and provides protection and recognition to over 120 million hectares (300 million acres) of globally significant wetlands.
Australia has more than 60 Ramsar sites, covering an area greater than the southern island state of Tasmania.
Kingsford, from the University of NSW, said clearing an area the size of 750 football fields could permanently threaten important bird breeding grounds.
"The next time we get a good flood, essentially they'll come back and they'll be all ready to go to breed, because they're faithful to the same site year in, year out -- and there will be nowhere for them," he said. ($1=A$1.21)