Tagged: biodiversity loss

The fight to save the Golden-shouldered Parrot

In 1922, Cyril Jerrard captured the first and only photographs of the Paradise Parrot, the only Australian bird to be officially declared extinct since European colonisation. Jerrard was well aware he was looking at one of the last of its kind: “The one undisguisable fact [is] that the advent of the white man has spelled destruction to one of the loveliest of the native birds of this country,” he wrote in 1924.

The last accepted sighting of a Paradise Parrot – also by Jerrard – was in 1927, near Gayndah in the Burnett River district of southern Queensland.

Nearly a century later, in the fading light of dusk, I’m standing 20 metres from a bird feeder, clicking away in vain as a pair of Golden-shouldered Parrots, the Paradise Parrot’s closest surviving relative, accept a handout at Artemis Station, a cattle property on Cape York Peninsula in the state’s far north. My images are rubbish, but while I’m watching, I have an eerie sense of how Jerrard might have felt.

Male Golden-shouldered Parrot, Artemis Station, 13 July 2021

Almost exactly 10 years ago, I watched a flock of 50 Golden-shouldered Parrots beside the Cape Developmental Road at Windmill Creek, near the northern boundary of Artemis. For decades, the 125,000-hectare station has been the species’ stronghold. Today it holds maybe 50 birds in total. There are scattered groups on neighbouring stations, and an unknown number in the remote Staaten River National Park to the south.

Once, Golden-shouldered Parrots were common from Coen, 120 kilometres north of Artemis, to Normanton in the Gulf of Carpentaria, where the first specimen was collected in the 1850s. They were trapped for aviculture (in the 1970s, a pair could fetch $10,000 on the black market; their value has decreased as the birds are now common in captivity). Over decades, their range has shrunk, as a combination of pressures took their toll.

Now station owners Sue and Tom Shephard, in collaboration with a team led by applied ecologist Steve Murphy, are taking radical, counter-intuitive action to save the species. Using a mixture of brush-cutting and herbicide, the aim is to declutter the landscape to the parrot’s benefit. It took nearly two years to gain the relevant approvals from the state Department of Environment and Heritage Protection.

The project is a jointly funded venture between the federal government’s Landcare and Threatened Species Recovery Hub programs, and the Queensland government. Donations from the public are also being actively solicited. “People feel very invested in Golden-shouldered Parrots,” Murphy says. “A lot of people have been to Artemis. They know the station, they’ve met Tom and Sue.”

Land clearance is one of the most politically vexatious issues in Queensland. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening here. “We are clearing native vegetation, and the last thing the department wanted was a roughshod approach to giving their approval, which could have had all sorts of unforeseen consequences elsewhere,” Murphy says. The paperwork, finally signed off in late June, is an inch thick.

Once, the savannah country of Cape York consisted of open grasslands, studded with tall, mature eucalypts and the conical, witch’s hat-like termite mounds in which Golden-shouldered Parrots excavated their nests. Grazing and altered burning practices have transformed their habitat, which is now choked by an understorey of tea-trees and other low shrubs, as well as introduced grasses.

“It’s a long history of grass suppression through grazing – and I’m not having a go at farmers here – combined with low-intensity fire,” Murphy explains. “The very thing that keeps these plants in check in a normal grassland is intermittent high-intensity fire, early in the wet season. Without the grass layer to allow that higher-intensity fire, we’ve lost the very thing that’s kept all these plants in check.”

In the old country, the parrots had clear sightlines that helped them avoid predators. Small aerial birds called woodswallows would circle overhead, sounding the alarm at the first sign of danger. But the infestation of the landscape saw the woodswallows move on, and the parrots – having lost their early warning sentinels – were ambushed by hawks, butcherbirds, goannas and cats hiding in the scrub.

Stephen Garnett, professor of conservation and sustainable livelihoods at Charles Darwin University and co-author of The Action Plan For Australian Birds, identified the problem in the early 1990s. “The Shephards have held the situation around Artemis by providing supplementary food. But all around there, areas that I found [the parrots] commonly in the 1990s are now empty of nests,” he says. He estimates the total population at around 900 birds.

First, the birds’ range began to contract from the north-east. The situation is little better south of Artemis, at Mary Valley. “When there are parrots in an area, they do a test scratch on a lot of mounds, and you can see the bits of dirt that they scratch out. We did not find any evidence of any recent breeding,” Murphy says.

“The termite mounds just sit there like gravestones. You feel like you’re walking through a cemetery.”

Conical termite mound with hollow excavated by Golden-shouldered Parrot

There are three types of termite mounds on Artemis, made by different species: magnetic, bulbous and conical. For reasons not fully understood, Golden-shouldered Parrots are fussy, nesting almost exclusively in conical mounds early in the dry season. They are almost never reused: after being bored into by the parrots, it’s thought the termites reseal and reinforce hollows more solidly, making them harder to burrow into.

Now, Murphy’s team is staging an intervention, getting to work with a circular saw. Standing close to a mound where five chicks had just fledged, the team’s first objective is to clear the immediate area around the nests. “What we’re trying to do is reduce predator density across the landscape, and provide the maximum amount of visual distance for the parrots to see predators coming,” Murphy says.

Timber and debris piles up on the ground. While the threat of aerial ambush predation is being reduced, in the short term, there’s more cover for cats. “We’ll put a fire through later in the year and remove most of this, and anything that’s left we’ll physically drag away,” he says. “We’ve got to be constantly vigilant about the impacts we’re having, and make sure we don’t have any perverse outcomes.”

There’s a chirruping call behind us, and Murphy cocks his head and grins. “Parrots,” he murmurs.

For now, they should be relatively safe. The breeding season is over, and the birds have stopped visiting the mounds. These have their own complex ecology: a species of moth lives exclusively in the nesting hollows and is entirely dependent on the parrot for its existence: the moth’s larvae eat the parrot’s faeces in the nest chamber, performing a hygiene role for the chicks (the moth’s specific name is scatophaga: literally dung-eater).

Artemis has been owned by the Shephard family since 1911. Sue and Tom have borne witness to the changes in the landscape, particularly since the property was fully fenced. The fence helped with mustering, but confining the cattle put pressure on the impoverished, sandy soils. “I can see we’re at fault, just as much as everyone else,” Sue admits. “But you’ve got to make money, prices go up and down, and when they’re down it’s really hard.”

She is being harsh blaming herself. Other than perhaps the traditional owners, the Thaypan and Olkola people of Cape York, who are assisting with re-establishing old burning practices, she knows as much about the parrots as anyone. For decades, she has helped lead banding programs to track individual birds’ movements. The parrots are also a tourist attraction, and the station charges a nominal ($10) camping fee.

In the old days, the Shephards had to see off poachers, who would set up traps for the birds at Windmill Creek. “We’d go to the races at Laura or somewhere and sometimes we’d come home early and find them,” Tom remembers. Once, he freed dozens of birds – not just parrots but finches and other species – from a mist net, which he then burnt, before confronting the trespasser. “I don’t think he liked me too much.”

If the grasslands can be restored, with appropriate fire management, the land should ultimately be better for both cattle and parrots. Murphy sees himself as an enabler. “The thing that makes this project unique at Artemis is that this is not an external, top-down, greenie conservation cause imposing itself on a grazing enterprise,” he says. “This is 100 percent coming from within.”

There is another driver. “The thing that motivates me a lot in this story is the Paradise Parrot, and it’s gone, we can’t get it back. This species is heading the same way.” Murphy puts himself in Cyril Jerrard’s shoes. “I often think, if I was transported back in time, what would you do? In some ways, I feel like a reverse time traveller. I’ve come back and I’ve gone, ‘Guys, if we don’t get in and solve this, we are going to lose these birds’.”

First published in the Guardian, 8 August 2021

Questions Raised by Quolls

All Harry Saddler really wanted to do was to see a quoll in the wild.

It was November 2019, and the Melbourne-based author was enjoying a surprise publishing success: his small book, The Eastern Curlew, a telling of the extraordinary migration of Australia’s largest shorebird, had sold through its hardcover print run, opening a new niche in Australia for natural history writing.

This was when Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were beginning to choke the eastern states, and before the pandemic that would force Saddler to write from home. It changed his focus. “It became impossible to write about the state of the environment in Australia and not confront those things head on,” he says.

Saddler’s new book, Questions Raised By Quolls, became more a work of moral philosophy than natural history. Written quickly, it became part-treatise on the legacy of colonialism, part-family history: Saddler’s ancestor Michael Farrell was transported as a convict to Sydney from Ireland in 1816.

“I think that aspect of the family story in the book was a way to write about the human effects of colonialism without co-opting other people’s stories,” Saddler says. “I touch on the damage done to Indigenous societies in the book too, but I was conscious that those are not my stories to tell.”

Another consequence of colonisation has been a wave of mammalian extinctions: 34 Australian species have been officially extirpated since European settlement. Eastern Quolls disappeared from the forests of the mainland decades ago and are now confined to Tasmania; Western, Northern and Spotted-tailed Quolls are all threatened.

It helps that these predatory marsupials are charismatic animals. Saddler wonders briefly if he should have written about rodents instead: “They’re the unsung heroes of the Australian mammal fauna, and they’ve really copped the brunt in terms of mammal extinctions,” he muses. “But it might not have been as appealing.”

So, instead of paying tribute to rodents, Saddler writes about those doing the work on the ground to save them – quolls and much else besides – in sanctuaries like Mulligans Flat in Canberra and Arid Recovery Reserve in northern South Australia, where long-gone species are being reintroduced in fenced-off environments.

“All these places run on the smell of an oily rag, because there’s no money in conservation at all, and yet people are nonetheless doing incredible work to restore ecosystems as best they can to bring the animals back, and you can see tangible results in some places,” Saddler says.

Unfortunately, the pandemic confined Saddler to writing about these places from his desk. Somehow, it increased the urgency. “Being someone who’s prone to introspection at the best of times, I think it helped me look beyond the four walls of my house, because I was thinking about larger things, looking back into the past, and potentially into the future.”

Writing Questions Raised By Quolls enabled him to focus on hope, instead of submitting to grief. “There is an understandable urge to despair in terms of the environment [but] there is still an enormous amount in the world to be saved. Yes, we’ve lost an extraordinary amount, but we haven’t lost everything, and we have to fight for everything that we have left,” he says.

It also raises ethical questions not often touched on by men. Saddler’s father instilled in him a love of bushwalking. Now in his early 40s, Saddler wishes he could pass on the knowledge he inherited to children of his own: “I get clucky when I see baby magpies begging for food,” he admits. (Saddler is currently single.)

But he worries about the world he would be bringing a child into. This is not, he says, a question of overpopulation: “I really strongly reject that argument, primarily because it presupposes that our systems and ways of living and organising society and our economy are just fixed and immutable and are never going to change.”

Saddler is more concerned with the question of raising a child on a planet that is literally burning up. But he prefers to imagine a more equitable world, where sustainability is possible – in which case the question of the Earth’s ultimate human-carrying capacity is less urgent.

It was with his own father that he saw his first Eastern Quoll, hiking in Tasmania nearly 20 years ago. Soon, he hopes, he may be able to see one again. “If you’re going to write a book about an animal, you should be able to see the animal, that’s half the fun of it,” he says. “At least I saw some Eastern Curlews writing The Eastern Curlew.”

First published in the Guardian, 28 July 2021

Flight Lines

Nearly 20 years ago, in pursuit of a different sort of life, I spent six months commuting between Brisbane and Robbins Island, a remote chunk of privately owned land just off the far north-west coast of Tasmania. My job at the time was identifying and counting birds as part of an environmental impact assessment for a proposed windfarm.

The uninhabited island is a tough place to get around, accessible only by four-wheel-drive across the mudflats, at low tide. But its wild west coast is a haven for many thousands of migratory shorebirds, around 25 species of which perform marathon, nearly non-stop flights from the Siberian tundra, where they breed, all the way to Australia and back, every year.

Going through my notes from December 2002, a few numbers jump out: over 600 Curlew Sandpipers; 100 Great Knots; 180 Grey Plovers; more than 3,000 Red-necked Stints. One month later, these birds were joined by over 240 Bar-tailed Godwits. The numbers were impressive, but fairly typical at the time.

Five Grey Plovers over the Oregon coast, USA. Photo: Roy L Lowe

Now the windfarm proposal is back on, and Andrew Darby – a Hobart-based journalist and the author of a new book, Flight Lines – has been helping survey birds on the island again. In 2015–2016, the Curlew Sandpiper, great knot and the local subspecies of Bar-tailed Godwit were all listed as critically endangered. Last year’s counts turned up just one Grey Plover.

But wind turbines are not the cause of the birds’ decline. The overwhelming threat is habitat destruction, particularly the mudflats of the Yellow Sea in China – a critical layover where the exhausted birds replenish themselves – and around the Australian coastline, including Toondah harbour in south-east Queensland.

It all sounds familiarly grim. And yet Flight Lines, which was written either side of a life-threatening diagnosis of lung cancer in 2018, is far from it. In dark times, Darby looked for inspiration in the resilience of shorebirds, in particular the stories of two satellite-tagged female Grey Plovers named CYA and CYB.

Until recently, Darby was no more interested in birds than the average person and shorebirds existed on the periphery of his consciousness – until he learned about their ultra-marathon travel schedule. “They are the birds ‘out there’, on the edge of the tideline, not really very noticeable creatures, and yet they have such extraordinary lives,” he says.

He describes the Grey Plover as the “everybird” of our Siberian migrants: the greyest and drabbest of a group of birds which, in Australia, tend to be grey and drab, moulting into their brighter summer plumage on their breeding grounds. That interested Darby: “In life, there are many surprises to be found among the overlooked,” he writes.

Like Harry Saddler’s surprise hit from 2018, The Eastern Curlew (which follows the journey of another long-distance migrant), Flight Lines takes what appears to be a niche topic and turns it into an immense, heroic and surprisingly uplifting narrative of endurance and survival, with an obvious parallel to his own experience.

But whereas Saddler’s account is intimate and personal, Darby’s book, which was nearly curtailed by his illness, directly engages with, and celebrates, citizen science. The book opens with a tense account of a cannon-netting session at the head of Gulf St Vincent, South Australia, that captured CYA and CYB.

Cannon netting, where birds massed on the shoreline are trapped via a net literally launched from a cannon, is a contentious method of study in some quarters. The hard truth is that birds, occasionally, are killed. But it has also greatly advanced our knowledge of shorebird movements and their conservation requirements.

Satellite tracking enabled close observation of the challenges CYA and CYB faced; CYB, for example, had to contend with a super-typhoon as she flew back to the Yellow Sea after breeding. Not surprisingly, Darby says, “I became very fond of them” and it was in science, as well as the pluck of the plovers, that he drew hope for himself.

There’s some lesson in that, particularly as science is being pilloried and politicised as never before. But there’s no politicising a cancer diagnosis. Immunotherapy, still a relatively new field, has Darby in better shape – though he says it would be wrong to say he’s cured. “Oncologists are learning about it as we go. It’s a new journey for all of us.”

The link to shorebirds, he says, is in the simple grunt work of gathering data. “It’s all about doing science for science’s sake – they didn’t start off looking for immunotherapy as an answer to cancer when they were investigating how it worked with the immune system; they were just looking at the immune system,” he says.

Similarly, he says, tracking shorebird migration didn’t begin with a particular goal in mind. The pioneer of shorebird study in Australia, the late Clive Minton, told Darby “we do it to answer a question, and that leads on to the next question”.

But the questions Minton asked helped provide the data pointing to the alarming decline of shorebirds worldwide. That’s led in turn to some more hopeful outcomes. Last year, the intertidal wetlands of the Yellow Sea–Bohai Gulf of China was placed on the UNESCO world heritage register, specifically aimed at protecting migratory shorebirds such as the tiny, charismatic and critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper.

The Spoon-billed Sandpiper doesn’t occur in Australia, but it’s considered a flagship species, so inherently appealing that by saving it we might save much more besides. Listening to Darby describing his own encounter with one, it’s clear why: “It was like this cute little wind-up bird, I was sure he was going to fall over and [I was going] to see the key in his tummy.”

After a summer in which so much of our own wildlife has been obliterated by fire, he has retained his optimism. “The capacity of these birds to persist is what I found astonishing, and to someone who lives a precarious life with cancer, like me, it’s a lesson. You know, I will come and go – these birds will roll on.”

First published in the Guardian, 22 February 2020

Snail’s place

In 1996, Dr John Stanisic, then curator of invertebrates at the Queensland Museum, was doing a routine environmental impact assessment near Taroom in southern central Queensland, some 380 kilometres north-west of Brisbane. The purpose of Stanisic’s survey was to check for rare and threatened species around an impoundment for the proposed Nathan Dam, on the Dawson River.

The dam was a controversial project in the district, as it would have flooded large areas of arable farmland. The usual arguments were trotted out about jobs for the local community. The water, it was said, would supply the needs of the local towns. Others suspected that the real reason was to service a proposed mine at nearby Wondoan, now in mothballs due to the tanking price of coal.

Stanisic and his team were checking an unusual habitat called boggomoss, where natural springs emerge from the Great Artesian Basin and create small lagoons in the otherwise dry semi-arid woodlands of the Brigalow Belt. One of his team, who was searching for isopods (which the rest of us know as slaters), unearthed a snail from the leaf litter. “I knew right away what it was,” Stanisic says. “It was like, Eureka!”

Stanisic, who goes by the name of the Snail Whisperer on his own website – he has discovered and described some 900 species since 1980 – had been searching for this particular mollusc for 10 years. He recognised it instantly from one of two shells in the museum’s collection, historically collected from the nearby township of Theodore, but otherwise completely unknown in the wild.

Stanisic then went through the process of formally describing and naming the species: Adclarkia dawsonensis, the Boggomoss Snail. As its entire known habitat was about to disappear into a pit, he also went through the process of listing it for protection. “It takes about a 12-page pro-forma to get one of these things through, it’s like filling out a census form, and you’ve got to know a bit about the snail first,” he says.

The snail halted development of the dam, and its oddly triumphant story is an instructive one. Last week, the office of the Threatened Species Commissioner Gregory Andrews released an updated list of threatened species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999. It has been widely and erroneously reported that 49 species were added to the list.

This is not true: 21 species were added, including six mammals, seven birds, six plants, an insect and a fish. One species, the Swift Parrot, was upgraded from the endangered to critically endangered category, and a further 27 already listed species were updated to reflect changes in their currently accepted names and taxonomy, with no change to their status. Two species were deleted from the list altogether.

Nonetheless, it was the biggest update to the list since 2009, and took the number of threatened species listed – and thus protected – under the EPBC Act to 1,794. “That legislation is relatively strong,” says Chris Pavey, an arid zone ecologist with the CSIRO in Alice Springs. “If you want to go ahead with a development, you can’t ignore any EPBC-listed species on your land; there’s just no way around it.”

When the left professes a grudging admiration for former Prime Minister John Howard, it is usually for strengthening gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre in 1996. But the EPBC Act, which passed with the aid of the Democrats’ Meg Lees as part of the deal for getting the GST through the Senate, is the other piece of legislation it should thank him for.

That deal ultimately destroyed the Democrats, but it left a profound environmental legacy. Its efficacy was demonstrated last August, when the Federal Court stayed development of Adani’s Carmichael coal mine on account of federal environment minister Greg Hunt’s failure to consider the mine’s impact on two threatened species: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The halting of the mine on account of two reptiles caused apoplexy within the Abbott government. The Senate had repeatedly frustrated its attempts to de-fang the EPBC Act via its “One Stop Shop” legislation, an attempt to streamline environmental approvals for large projects by handing the process to the states as part of its war on so-called green tape.

The decision also proved the act recognised, very simply, that all species have an inherent right to exist and are deserving of our protection: the obscure as well as the iconic.

The problem, as the snail shows, is that we aren’t even close to knowing the extent of our own biodiversity. According to A.D. Chapman’s 2009 edition of The Number of Living Species in Australia and the World, Australia has an estimated 566,398 types of plants, animals and fungi. Of these, only 147,579 have been formally described and named. Stanisic says 700 of Australia’s snails alone remained formally undescribed.

This illustrates two issues: the paucity of taxonomists in Australia, and that we are potentially at risk of losing thousands more species from under our noses. “There are many species about which we know almost nothing that probably merit listing and we simply don’t know anything about them,” says John Woinarski, deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub and a professor at Charles Darwin University.

Worldwide, about 18,000 new species are described each year, roughly 75 percent of which are invertebrates. And taxonomists themselves are a threatened species. Much of the work is left to museums, with small staffs and limited resources. “We actually need people to be out there finding and describing new species,” Pavey says. “Way before cuts started happening to research-based organisations like the CSIRO, museums have been copping it for a long time.”

A related problem is the tendency to prioritise cute and colourful megafauna. “People tend to forget that small animals and plants form 99 percent of our terrestrial biodiversity,” Stanisic says. “But they get less than .001 percent of a look-in when it comes to assessments and environmental surveys. Yet they have so much to tell us about what the fine-grain make-up of the landscape is.”

Woinarski says that while creatures like the Leadbeater’s Possum play an important public relations role in raising awareness of conservation issues, they create a bias at the expense of less charismatic species. And because so little is known about so much of our fauna and flora, the process of listing them as threatened is slow, finite, and ad-hoc. In some years, marine animals might be the theme; reptiles in others.

“There’s a substantial degree of evidence that’s required, and for many of the most poorly known and most restricted species, there’s simply not enough knowledge to satisfy the onus for listing,” Woinarski says. “Many other species in Australia are highly imperilled and deserve to be listed, but aren’t. So our conservation problems are likely to be far worse than what is currently apparent.”

Further, as the sad decline of the of the Swift Parrot shows, listing a species is no guarantee of saving it. “The act is far less good at dealing with more pervasive and subtle and insidious threats, such as predation by feral cats,” Woinarski says. “We need to understand the threats that are affecting threatened species and ensure we can combat those threats far more effectively than what we’re doing at the moment.”

Years before his move into politics, former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen pioneered a way of clearing the Brigalow woodlands around his Kingaroy peanut farm by pulling a heavy chain between two bulldozers, a method still being used today in the mulga woodlands further west. These days, almost all of what remains of the Brigalow is on roadside verges, with next to none protected.

Stanisic points out that he has since found two more critically endangered snails in those remnants of Brigalow around Dalby, Chinchilla and Miles, now the heart of coal seam gas development. “Every type of bushland I look at, I find another one,” he says cheerily. “I’m just in the process of describing two large snails from Queensland; it’s really quite amazing that things that large can still be un-named in 2016.”

Invertebrate zoology, he says, remains a wide-open field of study. The Snail Whisperer signs off with a flourish: “Anything I can do to promote the snail world, the better!”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 14 May 2016

Not pretty enough: an extinction under our nose

“Why do you see, why do you see, why do you see right through me?” – Kasey Chambers

Recently, my partner and I took a walk up in the forests of Mt Mee, at the northern end of the D’Aguilar Range about an hour’s drive from Brisbane. We had a specific purpose: we were searching for the rare, threatened and exceptionally beautiful Richmond Birdwing. To our delight, we found a male quickly, not far from the car park of the Mill Rainforest Walk. I’d wanted to see one of these creatures for years, and it was truly an eye-popping pleasure (photo courtesy Tom Tarrant).

RBW

The birdwing is a very large butterfly, one of three in the genus Ornithoptera in Australia. The males of all three species found in this country (the other two are the Cairns and New Guinea Birdwings) are similar: the upperwings are a striking contrast of deep velvet black and emerald green; the abdomen is bright yellow, while the underwings are adorned with an intricate latticework of yellow, black and turquoise. They are the southernmost representatives of their type, originally occurring from around Maryborough in south-east Queensland down to the Clarence River in northern New South Wales. Apparently they were abundant in Brisbane in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

You would be hard-pressed to find a birdwing in Brisbane now. Destruction of the subtropical rainforests on which it depends has both shrunk the butterfly’s distribution and fragmented it (less than one percent of the original area still exists). The extreme drought of last decade exacerbated its decline, and as remnant populations became isolated from one another, the effects of inbreeding resulted in more local extinctions, even where the habitat remains suitable.

As if all that isn’t enough, the butterflies are prone to mistakenly laying their eggs on a poisonous exotic vine, a South American species called the Dutchman’s Pipe, which kills the larvae. They do this because the host vine on which the butterflies depend – the similar-looking Richmond Birdwing Vine (Pararistolocia praevenosa) – is itself very scarce, suffering its own contraction in range along with the forest in which it lives.

Depressed already? Sorry, it gets worse. But not necessarily for the Richmond Birdwing, which actually has a fighting chance of survival. Thanks mainly to its extreme beauty, it’s considered an “iconic species“. Now, I’ve never heard of any committee or individual deciding what makes an iconic species; rather it seems that certain animals and plants somehow just become iconic, and are used to represent a region’s entire biodiversity. Sometimes a species may represent a whole state, or even country – Pandas in China being the classic example.

Often, iconic species may be extinct (think the Thylacine, otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger) or endangered (such as the Tasmanian Devil, or Victoria’s twin faunal emblems, the Helmeted Honeyeater and Leadbeater’s Possum). Koalas are so ridiculously cute and therefore iconic on a national scale that a whole foundation exists to conserve it – which is lucky for them, given the rate at which they’re getting knocked off in Queensland lately. Polar Bears are a different type of iconic species, with its increasingly terminal decline a potent global symbol of climate change.

Being declared an iconic species can be pretty handy, though, especially if you also happen to be endangered. It means a lot of public money gets sunk into your conservation. In the case of the Richmond Birdwing, it means having your likeness (and donation buckets) displayed at the entrances to places where you are known to still exist, like Mary Cairncross Scenic Reserve near Maleny; it means education and awareness programs in schools; it means specially designated days where lots of your favourite food plants are sown by volunteers in the hope of attracting your attention (and nasty competitors like the Dutchman’s Pipe are removed); it means having your image displayed on tea towels and mugs and other trinkets, with revenues going towards your care; it means teams of people meeting to discuss your perilous situation, and publishing reports documenting your plight or progress.

But if you’re not iconic – not pretty enough, or you live (figuratively speaking) in the slums rather than the gentrified inner suburbs, then it’s a bit like the public health system: you might as well just take a number and die while waiting for someone to attend to you.

By way of example, let me draw to your attention the example of another butterfly, the Laced or Australian Fritillary. When I first started getting seriously interested in butterflies a couple of years ago (a natural extension of my long-standing obsession with birds), the fritillary quickly attracted my attention. For one, it lived locally – roughly, its distribution spanned a similar area to the Richmond Birdwing – and it was considered rare.

But the fritillary was not a denizen of the subtropical forests featured on Queensland tourist brochures. Instead, it inhabited the thick, spiky, swampy coastal heathlands and paperbark woodlands of the coast, where it relied on a small herb from which springs a rather lovely purple flower, Viola betonicifolia, for its survival. And thanks to a combination of urbanisation, farming pressure and general carelessness, much less of that habitat remained than even what remains of our rainforests. Four-fifths of fuck all, really.

You’ll note that I’m suddenly speaking in the past tense. That’s because it’s quite possible and even likely that the Laced Fritillary (which, while nowhere near as spectacular as a Richmond Birdwing, is in its own right a beautiful butterfly, being a deep orange with fine black spots) is not just rare, but already gone. I mean extinct; bleeding demised; snuffed it; gone off to join the choir invisible, etc. A few polite inquiries revealed that the last specimen was collected near Port Macquarie in northern New South Wales nearly a decade ago, in April 2001, with an additional sighting from Bribie Island in south-east Queensland around the same time.

Gone, from right under our nose, and within the last decade. No fanfare. No headlines. No tears. No likenesses on tea towels; no lost archival footage (that I’m aware of, anyway) of the last lonely specimen fluttering sadly in an exhibit, like the famous bored Thylacine filmed in Hobart Zoo in the 1930s.

What’s more, like the Paradise Parrot – Australia’s only bird known to have become extinct post-European settlement, last seen in 1927 – it lived right here on my bloody doorstep: the parrot, too, was once known from inner Brisbane, with records from Kelvin Grove and Bowen Hills, and being as gorgeous as its name suggests, you can bet it would have become an iconic species if only it had managed to stick around long enough.

The next Australian bird in the gun, so to speak, is the Orange-bellied Parrot, which is down to a grand total of about 35 individuals. Although it breeds in the almost pristine wilderness of Tasmania’s south-west, it’s on borrowed time, thanks to its habit of migrating to the mainland each winter to feed on another undervalued and unprepossessing habitat, the saltmarsh plains of coastal Victoria and South Australia. Former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett once notoriously called the parrot a “trumped-up corella”. I’m not saying the Orange-bellied Parrot has been “Jeffed”, but his attitude, again, summed up the general care factor towards any wildlife that’s either smaller than a whale or not as cute and fluffy as a Bilby or Koala. And the OBP, while not exactly iconic, actually receives quite a lot of publicity relative to other endangered critters. That’s because it’s very visibly sliding off its perch on our watch.

Australia has an appalling track record when it comes to biodiversity loss: according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, our rate of extinction is more akin to small islands than whole continents (and that document was published in 1990). These days, we’re just trying to hold back the tide, really. In 2009 the former environment minister Peter Garrett (who once sang on an EP called Species Deceases, one of my very favourite Midnight Oil releases, which actually helped turn me on to environmental politics) conceded that further extinctions were inevitable, and that the government would shift its focus to preserving entire ecosystems rather than individual species.

I can see his point. Resources are scarce; there simply isn’t enough money to go around to save each creature on a case-by-case basis. At the same time, though, huge amounts of money are going towards saving icons like the Tasmanian Devil. And not that I resent a single dollar, but it leaves the fritillaries of this world up a certain creek with a turd for a paddle.

What disturbs me about the fritillary’s case, and should disturb all of us, is how silent this whole horror show is. We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs, to the point of playing God, deciding what we can and can’t afford to save. Mostly we don’t even know what we’re losing.

And all the while, we’re frantically trying to pretend none of it has any relevance to us.