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Senate Estimates: Wildlife diplomacy & Platypus exports by Taronga Zoo

Estimates & Committees
Lee Rhiannon 7 Nov 2017

On Monday, 23 October 2017 Lee asked the following questions in Senate Estimates of Paul Murphy, Assistant Secretary, Wildlife Trade and Biosecurity Branch and Sebastian Lang, Acting Threatened Species Commissioner, as part of the Environment and Communications Legislation Committee.

Wildlife diplomacy & Platypus exports by Taronga Zoo

Senator RHIANNON: Mr Murphy, I want to pick up on some of the questions we had in the May estimates about platypus going to San Diego Zoo. At the time, in response to some of my questions, you spoke about conditions, and I understood Taronga Zoo was preparing a draft of those conditions. You said:

They are doing the research and they will submit those conditions to us as a draft …

Has that happened?

Mr Murphy: We are still waiting for Taronga Zoo to provide us with a draft of those conditions.

Senator RHIANNON: So the platypus haven't been sent yet to San Diego Zoo—is that the case?

Mr Murphy: That's right. We've received an application from Taronga. There are a number of things that have to take place. One of those is the preparation of the conditions, and we're still waiting for Taronga to do that, so no platypus have been sent.

Senator RHIANNON: Have you had any more discussions with Taronga since May?

Mr Murphy: I believe officers from my area have had discussions, generally, with the zoo, but my impression is that not much progress has been made yet on those conditions.

Senator RHIANNON: When you say generally with the zoo, do you mean that it's generally about exports or specifically about platypus being exported?

Mr Murphy: Generally, about wildlife trade that the zoo's involved in, and officers would have confirmed the status of this application. However, there is no news, if you like, on the development of those draft conditions.

Senator RHIANNON: It sounds a bit vague, so I am trying to understand it. Do you mean that it's now up to Taronga Zoo to advance this and you're not the driver here?

Mr Murphy: That's right, Senator. That's always been the case. Taronga are committed to doing the research and preparing those conditions. They're required for safe transport and for the platypus to be able to be held overseas. That's really what we are waiting for so we can progress the application for the export permit.

Senator RHIANNON: Is there anything formally set down or in the discussions that your office has had with the zoo? Do they set out the conditions, aspects or categories that need to be addressed when these conditions are set out in detail by the zoo? Is there some template—how does it work?

Mr Murphy: There are broad requirements set out in the EPBC Act and also in the accompanying regulations. As well as that, there are conditions that are similar for some animals like koalas, so the zoo is well across how those conditions are set out.

Senator RHIANNON: Finally, on the conditions, are you saying that you rely on the EPBC Act and the regulations? They don't get into specifics about platypus, do they?

Mr Murphy: No, they set the standards for animal welfare in this regard for transport and the care of the animals once they go to the overseas facility.

Senator RHIANNON: Would that cover exposure to crowds and noise, considering there has now been a lot of research about the abnormal behaviour that can create in animals? There's often an increase in certain hormone levels, because of the stress the animals undergo. Considering that work has been done, would you ask Taronga Zoo, in this case, to address how they would manage the suffering that the animals might experience?

Mr Murphy: Our expectation is that the conditions developed would take into account all of the best practice science that's available. Until we see a draft of those conditions, it's very hard to comment on what they will have in them.

Senator RHIANNON: I gather you're aware of the research about the high cortisol levels found in native animals when they are under stress because of human activity—that's what I am trying to understand. Are you getting down to that level of detail and working with Taronga Zoo with regard to the welfare of these animals?

Mr Murphy: I am not a platypus expert. The zoo is working with researchers. They'll take into account all the latest science. When we receive those draft conditions, the officers, who know a lot more about the care of animals than I do, will take into account that science. They will look at the conditions and work with the zoo to make sure that they're best practice.

Senator RHIANNON: Will the public know when we get to the point of Taronga Zoo handing over the draft conditions to you? Partly, why I am asking is that there is public concern because, although it hasn't happened for a while, platypus have died when they've been sent to zoos overseas previously. There are zoologists in Australia who are very concerned about this. I'm trying to understand: is there a point where the public will know? Will you release the set of conditions that Taronga Zoo comes up with for public comment?

Mr Murphy: That's something we would discuss with the zoo at the time. There isn't a statutory requirement for consultation on permit conditions. As you say, we're very much aware of the public interest and concern about the proposal.

Senator RHIANNON: But it's not required to go public?

Mr Murphy: Not for that specific step, no.

Senator RHIANNON: The other thing that I want to ask you about, staying with the platypus, are the comments from the Threatened Species Commissioner. It was in your answers—maybe that was when it came up last May—that San Diego Zoo put about half a million dollars into a platypus conservation project. Are you directly managing that, or does that come through Taronga Zoo? Can you give us a bit more information about how this project is being carried forward.

Mr Murphy: I'm probably not the right person to answer that aspect.

Mr Lang: The project you're referring to is a project captured in the Threatened Species Prospectus. It essentially involves San Diego Zoo providing money directly to Taronga Zoo as a project. I can't advise whether or not that project has been initiated at this point. I can take it on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you have responsibility? Is this just a relationship between San Diego Zoo and Taronga Zoo, and then you're informed about it, or do you have to tick it off?

Mr Lang: It's a direct relationship between San Diego Zoo and Taronga Zoo subject to the regulatory arrangements that Mr Murphy oversees.

Senator RHIANNON: Do you mean that, for San Diego Zoo to hand over the half million for this conservation project, it could only happen after the platypus have gone to San Diego?

Mr Lang: No. In fact it's independent of the platypus arrangement.

Senator RHIANNON: That's what I'm trying to work out. It's independent, and San Diego Zoo is talking about putting in half a million for platypus conservation. How do you intersect with this project? Is it just up to Taronga Zoo, or do they engage with the platypus experts in Australia—zoologists who have worked on them for many years?

Mr Lang: That's correct. The project was a project in the threatened species prospectus. We looked at all the projects considered for the prospectus and established that this one had a lot of merit for its conservation value. Beyond that, it's a project that San Diego Zoo is investing in with Taronga Zoo.

Senator RHIANNON: The way you answered the question then, you judged it for its conservation value. I wasn't hearing that you're intersecting with the zoologists who work in this field outside Taronga Zoo. Is that the case?

Mr Lang: I would have to take that on notice to be sure, but my understanding was that it was a project involving a range of conservation scientists working on platypus.

Senator RHIANNON: If you could provide details of how it's working in Australia, that would be good. Where is it up to? Has the $500,000 been handed over to Taronga Zoo?

Mr Lang: Could I take that on notice, too, please?

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