Conservationists lay groundwork for vulnerable species

The ReForest Now volunteer tree planting team in the Daintree Lowlands Rainforest. Photo ReForest Now

Thomas Cook

A tenth of Australia’s mammals have been wiped out forever. They’re gone. And never coming back! Foundation for Australia’s Most Endangered Species Ltd (FAME) is working to prevent further losses. Losing 126 species of native plants and animals since European settlement in 1788 is catastrophic but in 2020 we’re faced with a further 182 endangered species and 201 threatened with extinction. That’s 30 per cent of what remains.

Established in 1993, FAME is an independent not-for-profit deductible gift recipient (DGR) organisation that seeks funds for on-ground conservation projects. FAME is dedicated to helping Australian species who are most at risk of extinction, like the flightless southern cassowary (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii). Also known as the double-wattled cassowary, Australian cassowary or two-wattled cassowary, they are a keystone species as they act as ‘rainforest gardeners.’ Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999), numbers for the world’s third largest bird are looking grim throughout Queensland’s rainforests.

Studies undertaken by scientists associated with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have estimated numbers in the mere thousands. Feral pigs cause massive disturbances in the rainforests and eat cassowary eggs, destroy nests and compete for fallen fruit. Other menaces include unleashed and wild dogs, along with vehicle strikes. However, the number one factor is the loss of habitat.

FAME’s partnership with ReForest Now and donorship support is seeing the implementation of vital habitat restoration. The replanting of thousands of rainforest trees is restoring lowland tropical rainforest for southern cassowaries to once again thrive in.

“Cassowaries need our help to recover and restoring habitat is one of the best things we can do for this amazing bird,” said FAME CEO Tracy McNamara.

The southern cassowary lives in Australia’s Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, which contains:

40 per cent of Australia’s bird species
58 per cent of Australia’s bat species
30 per cent of Australia’s mammal species
60 per cent of Australia’s butterfly species
21 per cent of Australia’s reptile species
21 per cent of Australia’s cycad species
29 per cent of Australia’s frog species
65 per cent of Australia’s fern species
30 per cent of Australia’s orchid species
Source: Australian Wet Tropics Management Authority

Photo ReForest Now

The cassowary and each of our native species have a role to play in the Australian ecosystem and our ecology could break down if losses continue. The ‘butterfly’ effect from a single further species lost could be catastrophic, even in ways currently unforeseen. Cassowaries are frugivores (fruit eaters) that feed on 238 plants species and swallow fruits whole. Many of the plant species rely on cassowaries for seed dispersal and germination – they’re the only group that can carry large seeded fruits over long distances. Once fruit is swallowed, the pulp is digested and seeds are passed unharmed in large piles of dung.

Some rainforest seeds even require the southern cassowary digestive process to help them germinate. The large southern cassowary scats often contain hundreds, if not thousands of seeds. A ready-made fertiliser, the dung helps with seed growth. When white-tailed rats, bush rats, melomys and musky rat-kangaroos feed on seeds in southern cassowary droppings, it further helps with the distribution of seeds.

Despite reaching up to about 2m in height and 44kg in weight and having unique characteristics like a large helmet (casque) and bright colours, cassowaries’ secretive nature makes them difficult to spot. They blend remarkably well in the dense rainforest so it’s their booming rumblings and grunts that will identify their presence.

Although most likely to retreat from intruders, their elongated claws will shred humans and other animals if they strike out. They breed when fruit is most abundant (June to October), which is when the males are typically the most aggressive, particularly if cornered. It’s the male of the species that looks after the large green eggs once laid by the females. They are also responsible for rearing the chicks, leading them around their territorial habitat to water and fruit trees.

The southern cassowary has seen its tropical rainforest habitat reduced by 75 per cent from land clearing for agriculture and coastal development. As the project’s replanted trees in the Daintree Lowland Rainforest become established, cassowaries are expected to again start using the area, which will also help other endangered species… a positive ‘butterfly’ effect.

“This on-ground project will have an immediate impact as the southern cassowaries will commence visiting the rainforest restoration sites, moving them away from the roads,” McNamara said. Every $10 donated enables the project to plant and maintain one tree until it is established.

FAME works with other organisations like the South Australian Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) and University of Sydney. Successful fauna projects also include finding the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnarts, securing a future for potoroos, bettongs, bandicoots, possums, wombats, wallabies, quolls, wrens, Tasmanian devils and malas, along with opposition to pests like feral cats and cane toads. Flora projects include saving native orchids and the very rare spiny daisy.

You can help by becoming a member where you’ll receive a year’s subscription to On the Brink magazine, regular e-newsletters and up-to-date information on programs and projects. Visit fame.org.au to make a donation and learn more about what they do.

An adult southern cassowary displays distinctive black plumage, a tall casque, bright colours and dangling red wattles.
An adult southern cassowary displays distinctive black plumage, a tall casque, bright colours and dangling red wattles.
Australia’s iconic southern cassowary is related to emus and other flightless birds. Photo Paul Ijsendoorn

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