We all want to see the incredible diversity of life protected. To see the living things around us thrive. So when we hear the word ‘extinction’ our hearts sink. It feels like a slowly rising tide that we can’t stop. And in Victoria, where thirty percent of our animal species are listed as threatened, it certainly is a huge problem.
But we don’t always hear about the success stories. The times where humans intervened and successfully turned the tables. These example show that we can protect all of Earth’s weird and wonderful creatures, but only if we take action, and if the right protections are in place.
Habitat destruction, ski field development and feral predators have had a huge impact on this little guy.
THE SITUATION: The Mountain pygmy-possum was thought to be extinct until one was miraculously discovered in a ski lodge at Mt Hotham in 1966. It is ground dwelling, lives above the snow line in the Australian Alps, and is the only Australian marsupial that hibernates. There are now three known populations at Mt Hotham, Mt Buller and in Kosciusko National Park in NSW.
THE ACTION: The Mt Buller population has been in dire straits and in 2009 was down to around 30 possums. The main reasons were habitat destruction, ski field development and feral predators. Genetic diversity was very low and they seemed to be suffering from in-breeding. This is when scientists from La Trobe University took the bold step of introducing males from the nearby but genetically distinct Mt Hotham population, and the results have been dramatic. By 2014 the population had tripled!
THE WIN! The Mountain pygmy-possum is still at risk, but this innovative genetic transfer means the Mt Buller population is no longer on the brink of extinction.
Environmental water during drought saved the Murray hardyhead from extinction in the wild in Victoria.
THE SITUATION: The Murray hardyhead is a little battler that really does deserve its name. It is a freshwater fish, but it can survive in water with high salt content, up to about half that of sea water!
It was once common across the Murray-Darling Basin. But a toxic combination of habitat destruction, drying rivers and invasive species like carp has had a drastic impact on this tough little guy.
At the height of the Millenium drought all the fish were stranded in just four isolated lakes. Their existence was hanging by a thread and extinction seemed all but inevitable, at least in Victoria.
THE ACTION: At this do or die moment the Victorian government made two crucial decisions that tipped the balance. Extra water was released to provide life support for the last few fish in Lake Woorinen North and a captive breeding population was established at a research centre in Mildura.
These decisions paid off. Since the end of the drought Lake Elizabeth has been refilled, and last year Murray hardyhead were reintroduced. In another first, Murray hardyhead have been translocated from a wetland in South Australia to Brickworks Billabong near Mildura, again after environmental water was used to create suitable habitat at the billabong.
THE WIN! Environmental water during drought saved the Murray hardyhead from extinction in the wild in Victoria. It has also been crucial in re-establishing habitat.
With no close living relatives, the Regent honeyeater is one of a kind.
THE SITUATION: With no close living relatives, the Regent honeyeater is one of a kind. As a result of indiscriminate clearing of its habitat – box-ironbark woodlands – for farming there are about 100 left in Victoria (and a total of 800-1500 Australia wide).
THE ACTION: Fortunately the Regent honeyeater has many friends. A captive breeding program at Taronga Zoo in Sydney has been releasing birds into the wild at Chiltern Mt Pilot National Park in north-eastern Victoria.
Thousands of volunteers have also been busy regenerating habitat for the honeyeaters. The Regent Honeyeater Project propagates and plants trees, places nest-boxes and monitors wildlife, and has been responsible for regenerating almost 900 hectares of box-ironbark habitat. A remarkable achievement!
THE WIN! As a result of these efforts, captive-bred honeyeaters have been seen mating with wild birds and raising chicks, and have survived over a number of years. One bird released in 2015 made a remarkable 540km round trip to Gippsland and back!
With friends like these, the Regent honeyeater’s chances of survival are greatly increased.
The Murray-Darling Basin Plan has helped Moira grass to grow and regenerate.
THE SITUATION: Barmah Forest is the largest River Red Gum forest on Earth. It is an internationally recognised wetland on the Murray river in northern Victoria. Thousands of egrets, ibises, herons, spoonbills, ducks and swans (phew what a list!) congregate here to nest and raise chicks. It also one of the last strongholds of Moira grass in Victoria.
Moira grass is an essential part of the ecosystem. It quietly recycles organic and inorganic matter back into living matter, providing food and habitat for birds, turtles, frogs and fish. But Barmah has been starved of water for decades due to over-extraction of water for irrigation and climate change. As a result both bird numbers and Moira grass cover were in freefall – today it has dwindled to less than 4 percent of the area it covered just a century ago.
THE ACTION: Since the Murray-Darling Basin Plan came into effect, steps have been taken to address the overuse of water and restore some balance to these ecosystems. As a result, more water is now reaching Barmah Forest and helping the Moira grass grow and regenerate.
THE WIN! Moira grass has responded well to the extra water and for now extinction has been averted. However feral horses, who find the grass quite tasty, are still a problem, and their removal will be crucial to the long-term survival of Moira grass and the wetland ecosystem.
The Mountain Swainson-pea is being reintroduced using seeds collected in NSW and the ACT after becoming officially extinct in Victoria.
THE SITUATION: This pretty purple flowering plant was once common across Victoria. But grazing, land clearing and fertiliser use took a heavy toll. The plant became officially extinct in Victoria when the last four plants disappeared from Chiltern-Mt Pilot National Park in 2012.
THE ACTION: Hopefully in this case extinction is not forever. Over the last five years Mountain Swainson-pea plants have been growing at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne from seeds collected in NSW and the ACT. Now these plants are being re-introduced at 10 sites on public and private land across the state.
THE WIN! Over 1000 plants have been planted so far, with a 50-75 percent survival rate. It’s early days, but the new plants are genetically diverse and there’s a good chance that at least some of the new populations will gain a foothold and survive.