Friday, April 4, 2008

Rare animals battling extinction threat

Rare animals battling extinction threat
By Bronwen Kiely
Posted Wed Apr 2, 2008 8:36am AEDT Updated Wed Apr 2, 2008 9:17am AEDT

The brush-tailed rock wallaby is one of many Australian species under threat. Since European settlement two centuries ago, Australia has lost almost a third of its unique mammal species.
Major causes like habitat loss, foxes and feral cats are well known. But now there's a new threat that some experts argue is the most dangerous of all: climate change.

Environment Minister Peter Garrett has pledged to spend almost $200 million creating reserves for endangered species.

Deborah Ashworth, from New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife, says brush-tailed rock wallabies used to be abundant all the way from southern Queensland through to Victoria.
"In the early 1900s they were hunted for their fur and they were declared vermin and agricultural pest and hundreds and thousands of them were killed," she said.
The hunters are long gone but with only a few thousand of these wallabies left, the threat of extinction remains.

Zoologist Tammie Matson, from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinction in the world.

"We're pretty good at cricket and swimming and sports and a lot of things in Australia but we're also really good at killing our mammals, and that's something not to be so proud of," she said.
Ms Matson is heading a WWF push to educate Australians about this woeful record by compiling a top 10 list of species under threat.

"When you get to the point where you're saying right, we can't save everything, this problem is so bad, I think that really shows just how bad the crisis is," she said.
The list includes the recently discovered snubfin dolphin, the tree kangaroo, and the northern quoll.

Deep in the bush near Eumundi in south-east Queensland Wildlife Queensland's Scott Burnett is on a quest for quolls, possum-like creatures that are highly endangered.
"In southern Queensland I found that quolls are hard to find. They're almost the same sort of status as Tasmanian tigers," he said.

This animal detective is setting camera traps hoping to snare a prized shot of a northern quoll.
"There's numerous rumours and sightings that are made but apart from this one skeleton that came from this property here, there's been no physical evidence of them here for the last 50 or 60 years," he said.

"So we're trying to just verify whether they do persist here because if they do it's a very significant population."

The film comes back with plenty of exotic and not so exotic locals, 149 of them, but sadly not a single quoll.

"Undoubtedly there's many more extinctions waiting to happen," he said.
"We really need to take drastic action soon if we're going to prevent those extinctions."
Under threat

It's not just rhetoric. In the past 200 years Australia has driven 27 of its mammals species to extinction. That's nearly half of all the mammals killed off worldwide in the last 500 years. Ninety-one of our remaining species are under threat; four are on the verge of extinction right now.

If we are complacent, they too will become museum curiosities, frozen in time. A mundane metal cupboard in the bowels of the Australian Museum is a last resting place for lost mammals.
The museum's Sandy Ingleby says the last known mammal extinction was the thylacine in 1936.
"There haven't been any recent waves of extinction but certainly the factors that contributed to the extinctions in the past are still there," she said.

Ms Ingleby is the keeper of the musty remains that make up one of Australia's largest museum mammal collections, 46,000 artefacts dating back to the 1860s.

"It's a constant reminder of how fragile the ecosystems are and the difficulty in bringing them back," she said.
"I think some species are really very close. They are a number that are down to such low numbers that anything could happen."

The country's leading experts agree it is likely more of our species are headed for the cupboard.
A new report by the CSIRO says climate change will bring inevitable and unpalatable choices.
The CSIRO's Mike Dunlop says he does not think it is feasible to protect all species in the wild.
"We may be able to identify some that will go extinct and protect them in zoos or botanic gardens but many species will be threatened and probably a large number will go extinct," he said.

Breeding plan
A group of brush-tailed rock wallabies are at the frontline of the battle to survive a changing world.
They are part of the captive breeding program on the New South Wales central coast which one day will send joeys back into the wild.
Warrigal the wallaby was originally trapped in NSW Kangaroo Valley. Now he is doing his bit to ensure the colonies he came from don't die out.
Meanwhile, tucked away in the rugged escarpments of Warrigal's former home, a love story is unfolding.
This remote corner of bushland was one home to a thriving band of brush-tails.
Last year, National Parks officers were dismayed to discover the colony had been reduced to one lonely female.
They named her Roxy and in the first program of its kind brought in three wild wallabies to save her line. Using radio collars an infra-red cameras National Parks staff are monitoring what appears to be a blossoming romance.
Now the wait is on for the first signs of that tabloid staple, the baby bump.
"Hopefully over time we'll keep adding to this colony and we'll eventually have a healthy colony of 20 or more animals that are doing really well and spreading out into the vacant habitat around here," Ms Ashworth said.
It is one small good news story amid the gloom.
Ms Matson says Australia has animals that aren't found anywhere else in the world.
"If we lose the quokka, we lose the greater bilby they're gone forever from the whole world," she said.
"To me, that would be absolutely devastating and I'm certainly not going to sit by and watch that happen."

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