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Australian species in peril as savior flounders

Earth Sanctuaries may be the best thing to happen to these swamp wallabies but investors are impatient.
Earth Sanctuaries may be the best thing to happen to these swamp wallabies but investors are impatient.  

SYDNEY, Australia (Reuters) -- Thousands of rare Australian animals, such as endangered numbats and long-nosed potoroos, face a precarious future as a company set up to ensure their survival faces extinction itself.

Conservation group Earth Sanctuaries Ltd, which trundled its selection of weird and wonderful wildlife to the Australian Stock Exchange in May 2000, has been forced to put up a "For Sale" sign as it desperately fumbles for a cash lifeline.

Floated at the tail-end of the boom in May 2000, Earth Sanctuaries raised $6.28 million (AUS$ 12.1 million) with the aim of buying up to one percent of Australia's land, restocking it with endangered native animals and raising cash from eco-tourism.

But the group, which was started over 30 years ago by colorful conservationist John Wamsley, has struggled to generate enough income to keep impatient investors happy and needs at least $5.1 million (A$10 million) to ensure its own survival.

Talking conservation to the marketplace is like preaching Christianity to the Taliban, you're talking a different language," a disappointed Wamsley told Reuters.

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One of Wamsley's biggest fans, effusive British naturalist David Bellamy, praises Earth Sanctuaries' philosophy as the "best thing that ever happened in conservation" and the ideal role model for conservation groups around the world.

"What the hell has conservation done? The World Wildlife Fund must have spent several billion pounds, it hasn't saved the panda, tiger, nothing," says Bellamy, who enchanted millions with his television series.

"All this money has been spent, and we're still losing species by the day. The only person who's done anything on a decent scale is Wamsley."

But critics suggest the group's business plan was untenable and that there were fundamental flaws in its strategy to generate revenues through eco-tourism.

Others report frequent clashes between Wamsley and mainstream conservation groups, who said that by enclosing huge areas he was effectively creating giant zoos instead of concentrating on preserving biodiversity across the vast continent.

"Confusing environmental goals with commercial goals was a serious structural problem with the business," says Clive Hamilton, executive director of the Australia Institute think tank.

"Environmental protection is a public activity that for the most part should not be privatised. Attempts to turn it into commercial enterprise for the most part are doomed to failure."

Giving sanctuary

Buying 14 hectares (35 acres) of overgrazed South Australian farmland in 1969, Wamsley erected huge vermin-proof fences to fend off predatory cats and foxes as he began restocking his first sanctuary with rare wildlife.

Earth Sanctuaries now manages 90,000 hectares (220,000 acres) divided into 10 sanctuaries, and says it has helped pull at least four species off the endangered list of more than 100 mammals.

Earth Sanctuaries aimed to buy up to one percent of Australia's land, restock it with endangered native animals and raise cash from eco-tourism.
Earth Sanctuaries aimed to buy up to one percent of Australia's land, restock it with endangered native animals and raise cash from eco-tourism.  

But with losses mounting, shares in Australia's only listed conservation group plummeted, dropping almost 60 percent to 17 percent in three days after it appointed Challenger Corporate on Monday to look at selling off its assets and restructuring the business.

Earth Sanctuaries, which values its boodies, bandicoots and other animals on its balance sheet, issued shares at $1.30 (AUS$ 2.50) when it listed.

Investors are refusing to cough up more cash, and unless an eco-friendly white knight can be found within a month, Earth Sanctuaries' protected creatures may face a bleak future.

"The worst case scenario is we can't get any support, the whole lot fails and thousands of endangered animals perish," says Wamsley, who frequently outrages cat lovers by wearing a feral feline pelt hat.

Despite the financial difficulties, Bellamy says scores of non-governmental organizations or wealthy individuals are already following in Wamsley's footsteps in an effort to reintroduce species and effectively preserve biodiversity.

The Australian government should study Wamsley's efforts to repopulate land with marsupials and rodents in the wake of the fires that devastated vast tracts of bushland in December and January, he adds.

Plentiful before the arrival of colonists and the introduction of cats and foxes, the animals munch through the easily inflammable undergrowth and help keep fires in check.

"Wamsley's a genius. He's an acerbic guy and he goes around with a cat on his head," Bellamy says. "(But) if he collapses, it's very, very bad news for the conservation movement."




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