Issues Magazine

Mammal Extinctions: A Top End Tragedy

By James Fitzsimons

A surge of mammal extinctions is underway in the Top End, according to an alarming new report.

If, as an animal lover who owned lots of pets, you came home to discover that some of your beloved four-legged friends were no longer there, you’d probably think something was amiss. You might call a neighbour, your local council or even the police. Strange then that, save for a small group of scientists, the recent absence of small native mammals from northern Australia’s vast natural landscape seems to be going unnoticed.

Twenty years ago, people in northern Australia were likely to witness bandicoots and quolls scampering around their campsites at night. But today your bedtime snoozing will only be disturbed by the cries from the occasional owl and maybe even a misplaced feral cat.

Why the change? What is happening?

Australia is now facing a new wave of mammal extinctions that, left unchecked, threatens the survival of numerous small- and medium-sized mammals. A new report released by The Nature Conservancy, Into Oblivion: The Disappearing Native Mammals of Northern Australia, brings together for the first time a vast range of published and unpublished information that documents the looming mammal extinction crisis in northern Australia. The report worryingly shows that, based on current trends, many native mammals will become extinct in northern Australia in the next 10–20 years.

Even the largest and most iconic national parks in northern Australia will lose native mammal species. Many of these species are found nowhere else on Earth, so once they are lost to Australia they will be lost forever from the planet.

How can this be? Wouldn’t people be aware that an extinction crisis was looming? Aren’t Australian mammal extinctions a thing of the past? An event consigned to history?

Unfortunately not, as this new report shows that there is an overwhelming body of evidence demonstrating that the risk of extinction is real, widespread and imminent.

So what if it is real? Does the loss of a few mammals that no one knows about really matter? People in the Top End’s popular and lucrative $23 billion nature-based tourism sector might argue that it does.

Internationally, Australia’s reputation is as wild and unique as Crocodile Dundee, with the wonders of Kakadu National Park, the Kimberley and Cape York capturing the imagination of thousands of visitors from across the globe every year. Australia already lays claim to the dubious title of the country with the worst rate of mammal extinctions. The loss of further species would cement this title into the history books.

Many Australians believe that the north is still an untouched wilderness, but in recent times the small controlled fires that have shaped northern Australia’s landscape have been replaced by more intense wildfires that turn the land to charcoal during the dry season. Feral cats as large as medium-sized dogs, which can give even the boldest of men a fright, have spread into every crevice of the country, devouring many small mammals night after night. And then there is the cane toad. Introduced as a form of biological control, which has clearly failed, this slimy creature is now knocking on the door of the Kimberley as it marches across the north.

Disease cannot be ruled out given we are an island nation. Australian animals are readily susceptible to diseases brought from outside by carriers such as non-native rats. We are all familiar with the virulent disease that afflicts the Tasmanian devil and is pushing the species to extinction. It is therefore not beyond the realms of reality to suppose that there is a disease affecting some of the mammals of the north, but more research is required before we know for sure.

Is the problem insurmountable? Is it too late? No, there is still time, but we need to act. Fires need to be better managed, feral cats and other pest animals need to be effectively controlled and the management of cattle grazing needs to be improved. Further investments need to be made into ecological research to determine which threats have the most impact on which species and which management responses are most cost-efficient.

These are practical, tangible and relatively easy solutions to implement but there needs to be the will to do it. If we decide instead to wait and see, it is very likely to be too late for some species. Let’s seize this chance and act now for our own interest and those of future generations.