Commerce “threat” to endangered animals

The helmeted honeyeater. Photo by Kyra Tsitsinaris.
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Commercial interests are blamed for threatening endangered Yarra River animals. Kyra Tsitsinaris reports. 

The habitat of the helmeted honeyeater, Victoria’s endangered emblem, is under threat due to commercial interest, according to a spokesperson for the tiny bird support group.

Cecilia Imre, the Friends of the Honeyeater’s environmental coordinator, says the land was fertile before the honeyeater’s habitat was cleared.

“It [the upper catchment] was opened up as farm land and trenches were made along the existing creek line,” Imre says.

Members of the Friends of the Honeyeater are working with Healesville Sanctuary and others including an ornithologist, geneticist and botanist to find ways to protect the endangered bird.

The Healesville Sanctuary also provides its time and services to Leadbeater’s possum program,which aims to save the species from from issues such as logging and deforestation.

Karina Cartwright, the species coordinator at Healesville Sanctuary, says: “It’s our responsibility to make sure that the recovery plan is rolled out. It is our method of ensuring that the helmeted honeyeaters don’t become extinct.”

Friends of the Honeyeater and Healesville Sanctuary are working together to revegetate honeyeater homes, breed honeyeaters in captivity and then release them into the Yelingbo Nature Conservation Reserve where the genetics of the population can be managed so the species can remain healthy.

Another group, Friends of the Leadbeater’s possum, has helped organisations such as My Environment, The Wilderness Society and Zoos Victoria focus on the revegetation and reconstruction of a healthy forest for the tiny, nocturnal animal.

“The helmeted honeyeater species can only survive in a riparian environment, by the riverside and surrounded by swamp-like areas,” says the sanctuary’s Karina Cartwright. This is much like the Leadbeater’s possum, which also needs a certain swamp-type forest to survive.

Friends of the honeyeater and volunteers from schools, scouts and other community groups concerned about the bird, organises frequent planting days to help save the species.

Environmental coordinator Cecilia Imre says: “It blows me away all the time because many of them [volunteers] have been there from the beginning, for nearly 30 years. They are so passionate.”

“Their passion for doing what they do and how many hours they put in just makes me very happy, and I know I’m in a good place and doing a good thing.”

It is because of the extensive help from the community that the helmeted honeyeater has so far been successfully saved from extinction.

Cartwright says: “Since the program has begun we’ve had the most birds since 1989 – when we knew they were critically endangered, there was 50 and there’s now almost 200.”

The Leadbeater’s possum, which also lives in the forest along the Yarrais yet another Australian species under threat of extinction mainly due to logging, according to the possum volunteer protection group.

Steve Meacher, president of the Friends of the Leadbeater’s Association, says that the main problem is the logging industry prefers trees that are 50-80 years old, similar to those the possums favor for a safe and stable habitat. He says about half the Leadbeater’s population is believed to have been lost in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.

Since then, Friends of the Leadbeater’s has been fighting harder than ever to save the possums despite the introduction of many regulations in the last half century favoring the industry regardless of the welfare of the animal.

Steph Sweeney, project officer of the Yarra River protection project, which is run by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, says: “We are trying to establish a parkland [along the Yarra] that’s more holistic.

“We focus on making sure the development in the future isn’t encroaching on the river.”

However, the Leadbeater’s groups’ Meacher says during this process “the complex forests are being destroyed by logging and get replaced by a simplified monoculture of plantations”, which is not suitable environment for the Leadbeater.

One of his main aims in seeking to revive the Leadbeater’s possum population is to make sure that, if and when the revegetation occurs, a special type of Australian eucalypt is present within their habitat. The possums are unable to survive without Eucalyptus Camphora.

However, these plans are constantly being postponed. People who own land within the Yarra waterways have argued that their permits would not be renewed when they expired if the Victorian government agreed to focus on more environmental aspects along the river.

Steve Meacher says: “So at the moment, the particular plan for revegetating around the Yarra and trying to increase that type of swamp land is not going very well at all.”