QUICK FACTS: EXTINCTION
To all non-Victorians: do you know what that state’s faunal emblem is?
It’s the Leadbeater’s Possum and, according to Australia’s leading expert on the animal, it is nearing extinction.
The expert’s recent resignation from the Victorian government’s advisory panel on the possum has ruffled some fur, bringing to stark light a barney between conservationists and the logging industry.
Professor David Lindenmayer, an ecologist at the Australian National University, says there are only between 1,500 and 2,000 of the Leadbeater’s Possum left in Victoria, making it the rarest animal in the country.
The tiny marsupial is strongly dependent on large old trees in Victoria’s Central Highlands mountain ash forests and the advisory committees investigations show that there’s been a massive loss of these forests, through 50 years of woodchip logging and, more recently, fires.
The Leadbeater’s habitat is down to a few remaining patches of old forests.
Professor Lindenmayer says the 2009 Black Saturday fires destroyed some 70,000 hectares of ash forests – about 45% of the Leadbeater’s homeland – and ought to have triggered a rethink of the state’s logging policies and agreements.
Instead, apparently blind to the scientific findings, the Professor says the Baillieu government has over-committed the remaining forests to logging with 20-year contracts that will “lock in” the extinction of the possum.
The Institute of Foresters (needless to say), disagrees.
“About two-thirds of Victoria’s mountain ash forests are contained in parks and reserves where timber harvesting is excluded. So, an ongoing timber industry restricted to the other one-third of these forests does not ‘lock in’ the extinction of the possum as Professor Lindenmayer claims,” says spokesman Mark Poynter.
“Indeed,” he continues, “the possum is largely absent from timber production forests with its best habitat in the parks and reserves. A decline in the number of standing ”stag” trees in these reserved areas is becoming a problem, but it will not be solved by ending timber harvesting in other areas.”
In fact, says the industry, the Leadbeater’s Possum relies on periodic fires to renew its habitat and the animal’s population has waxed and waned as the “forests have burnt and regrown”.
Professor Lindenmayer says he presented his findings on the parlous future of the Leadbetter’s possum to the Victorian Government’s environmental authorities and that the government has failed to produce even an “action statement” despite the fact that the Leadbeater’s possum is listed as an endangered species.
Consider this: the Leadbeater’s possum live in colonies of up to 12 animals and only one pair per colony will breed annually, producing just 2 joeys. If the litter dies, the females may breed again in the same season. But they nest in the hollows of Stags in the forests.
As the industry says, these stags are in decline. They’ll be in even greater decline if logging continues at the same pace.
The Leadbeater’s possum will wither and die without careful conservation effort.
But the Leadbeater’s possum isn’t the only animal facing extinction in Australia. In fact fifty-seven of Australia’s 349 mammals are under threat.
That’s a higher rate of threat than in any other developed nation, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organisation that examines threatened flora and fauna and compiles a “red list”.
Since European settlement, some 28 mammal species have become extinct, along with 126 plants and other animals. Twenty of the now extinct mammals were found nowhere else in the world.
The list of extinct, threatened and near threatened birds is a long and lamentable one. Some 13 per cent of Australian birds are at risk. Reptiles, insects, fish, amphibians, flora are all under pressure… but perhaps the most iconic are our mammals.
These are the mammals currently facing extinction:
- The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat is one of the rarest animals in the world and is critically endangered. Only one small population survives in the Epping Forest National Park in Central Queensland. The decline in its population is attributed to loss of habitat to cattle farming.
- The Brush Tailed Bettong were the so-called little Aussie battlers which tilled the landscape until European settlers arrived. They were extinct in South Australia until 1975 when they were re-introduced from species found in WA. They’re endangered because of natural predators and land clearance.
- The Western Barred Bandicoot was first recorded in 1817 and were widespread across Australia. But the last siting on mainland Australia was in 1922. They are now found only on Barrow and Dorre Islands having lost their mainland habitat to predators and farming.
- The Dugong with their grey coloured nostrils at the top of their snout are found in coastal waters off northern Australia but are classified as vulnerable because they’re hunted for their meat, skin, bones and tusks. Their habitat is also threatened by oil spills and fishing nets which entrap them.
- Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroo is found only in north eastern Queensland in rainforests. But it’s under threat from logging. It’s now classified as vulnerable.
- The Greater Bilby was once very common in central Australian deserts but fire, foxes and grazing cattle have put it on the endangered species list.
- The Numbat was once common across the southern parts of Australia but is now on the endangered list thanks to loss of its natural habitat, cleared for agriculture.
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