Saturday, 21 February 2009

Cassowary conservation

Although it is always nice to see articles focused on the endangered Australian Cassowary it is a shame that often writers do not find time to check their facts properly or to get their enthusiasm for species conservation channelled towards meaningful objectives.
It bears repeating that there are three species of Cassowaries; The Double-wattled, the Single-wattled and the Dwarf Cassowary. All three species have been credited with several sub-species. Only one sub-species of one species is endemic to Australia and this is Casuarius casuarius johnstonii, the Australian Double-wattled Cassowary, alternatively confusingly called the Southern Cassowary on the basis that its range is generally considered to be south of that occupied by an entirely different species, the Single-wattled Cassowary, which only exists in northern New Guinea.
Without doubt all Cassowary species are under threat. Only in Australia are there reasonably reliable statistics available about historic and current population sizes and ranges. We know almost nothing about the status of either the other two Cassowary species or about the other sub-species of Casuarius casuarius which exist outside of Australia.
The threats to the Cassowary are basically the same everywhere, but are particularly well documented in Australia: Habitat destruction and fragmentation, road-kills, hunting and invasive species. Apart from Mankind, Cassowaries have no natural enemies.
If Australia can serve as a model environment for species conservation it is perhaps ironic that there is a large Cassowary population in Australian zoos. Nevertheless, the State of Queensland has invested considerable facilities in localised measures to study and protect Cassowaries within its boundaries. To some degree Cassowary Conservation has become politically acceptable because of its flagship role and there is now even a Cassowary Coast to identify a civil administration. Despite the plethora of road signs indicating the possible presence of Cassowaries, the underlying political will to institute effective conservation measures must be doubted.
During the past fifty years tourism with attendant commercial benefits has increasingly had a negative impact on Australian wildlife and the rainforest habitat of Queensland. Over half of Queensland’s rainforest has disappeared or been severely fragmented in this time. Under the banner of progress, building and farming land, not to mention highway enlargement, has progressively encroached on the already depleted natural resources of the region. People, humans with short-sighted personal wealth objectives, have built houses, hotels, factories, schools, hospitals and supporting infrastructure to accommodate the steadily burgeoning population. There is and never was any strategic planning involved and development has proceeded piecemeal. Unfortunately for the wildlife their fate has been left to the mercy of natural disasters and belated (inter) national awareness of the importance of endemic species for the well-being and general stability of the environment.
It is not possible to turn the clock back, but some stern, probably politically unpalatable, measures could go a long way to halting the ongoing decline and perhaps reversing some of the worst excesses of the past 50 years.
1. Designate the forest and tidal forest/mangrove area as it was in 1945 as a protected area with zero future development. Establish new community areas outside of the protected area and encourage people to move into these through compulsory purchase resettlement over the next twenty years. Allow vacated plots to regenerate naturally. Public access should be limited to controlled entry points and specified routes until the forest has regenerated in 2075.
2. Install a 20kmh speed limit immediately with appropriate physical surface obstacles on all roads through and adjoining forest areas, particularly where fragmentation has occurred. The technology to enforce these measures would be easy to install and might allay some of the costs.
3. Permanently remove all pigs, dogs, cats and other non-endemic species from the protected area. Easier said than done, but within the bounds of ingenuity and determination. Although commercial hunting may help to eradicate foreign species the long term aim should be to make hunting and the carrying of all weapons within the protected area illegal.
Humans are at the same time the problem and the solution. It is necessary to get away from reactive measures and adopt long-term strategic planning which may take longer than a human lifetime to reach fruition, but will ultimately preserve the environment for all future generations. Unlike the wildlife deserving preservation, humans are capable of making the necessary decisions and implementing them.
The wildlife of Australia belongs to the people of the whole world and not just a few self-interested Queensland inhabitants.

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