Tagged: extinction

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

Birds find me in my happy place

On Saturday morning I boarded a fishing boat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, along with 15 or so others, chugged more than 40 nautical miles out to sea, where the Australian continental shelf drops off into deep water. But we weren’t out there for the fish: everyone was carrying binoculars and camera gear. We were looking for pelagic seabirds – shearwaters and petrels that spend most of their lives on the wing.

Conditions had been perfect all week, with south-easterly breezes to help push the birds closer inshore. “We’ll see a Cook’s Petrel today,” I predicted, feeling cocky. Not that I had good reason to be: only one Cook’s Petrel has ever been officially recorded in Queensland waters. It’s a small, graceful grey and white seabird with a black eye patch that breeds in New Zealand. The boat stopped and a trail of foul-smelling berley was throw into the water.

Twenty minutes later, to everyone’s delight, a Cook’s Petrel came bounding in over the waves, investigating our berley trail without pausing as camera shutters whirred with excitement. Within a minute, the bird was gone. It turned out to be one of the few highlights of an otherwise surprisingly quiet day, but I live for moments like this. For a few hours, as the waves rolled beneath us, I was in my happy place.

Along with music, birds have been the magnificent, consuming obsession of my life. It started when I was eight. Memories get hazy here, and possibly unreliable, but the first flash was a chance sighting of an Azure Kingfisher on the Ovens River, in north-eastern Victoria, a few metres from where my father actually was fishing. I revisited that place with him a couple of months ago, where he’d been dropping a line in since he himself was a boy.

The kingfisher was what hooked me. I stared at it, dumbstruck. It was a very small bird, brilliant blue and orange, and it was perched motionless on a dead branch protruding above the waterline from a red gum that had collapsed into the river. Abruptly it plunged headfirst into the water, emerging with a yabby, which it whacked against the branch before swallowing it whole. And then, in another flash, it was gone.

For me, watching birds – or birding, to use the more active verb – was and still is an escape and a refuge. Earlier this year, a University of Exeter study found that it was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, conditions with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. Research fellow Dr Daniel Cox said that having birds around the home had a role in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.

This is where Guardian Australia and Birdlife Australia’s Bird of the Year poll comes in. One of the best things about birding, as hobbies go, is that you can do it anywhere: it doesn’t matter what species you’re looking at, whether it’s something as unglamorous and largely unloved as a bin chicken (ibis) or as obviously charismatic as a lorikeet. A life of birds is never boring.

Take for example this brief video taken at my local cafe of an Australian magpie and pied butcherbird, two of our finest songbirds, in a glorious duet. It’s the sort of thing that can change the entire tenor (pun unintended) of my day. I haven’t actually voted in the poll yet, mainly because as a lifelong birder I find it hard to choose, but musical leanings make it hard to go past the butcherbird especially.

Behind the frivolity of the poll is a serious message: even our most familiar and beloved birds, like the Laughing Kookaburra, are in decline. Part of the #teambinchicken push is motivated by sympathy: this scraggy, smelly bird was a natural denizen of the swamps of our Murray–Darling system, generally only reaching the coast in drought years. As the swamps were drained and the land irrigated, the ibis came to visit our cities and eventually decided to stay.

So birds have much to tell us about the country and our changing environment. The early arrival of summer migrants are clues to climate change, as is the expansion southwards of tropical species. Sometimes, this added level of environmental awareness has been heartbreaking to watch: over the last 35 years, I’ve watched once abundant species like the Regent Honeyeater slide towards the cliff of extinction.

But mostly, a life of birds has meant adventure and opportunity. It’s taken me to every corner of Australia, chasing down everything I could from the Kimberley to Cape York. Searching for brilliantly coloured pittas in the rainforests of Borneo. And most memorably, two voyages south on Australia’s Antarctic flagship the RSV Aurora Australis, counting seabirds for what was then one of the longest-running wildlife surveys anywhere in the world.

And yes, I’m a twitcher. I once flew to Perth, then drove flat out to Whim Creek, a mining camp in the Pilbara, to see Australia’s second ever Red-legged Crake, a small waterbird, only to find it had been eaten by a cat. That’s birding – things don’t always materialise on cue like that Cook’s Petrel. But it’s not about the numbers. Whether it’s on my block or out to sea, I prefer to think that I don’t find the birds, they find me: in that happy place.

First published in The Guardian, 30 November 2017

Rats of spring

In Ronald Strahan’s revised edition of The Mammals of Australia, C. H. S. Watts describes the Plains Rat as among “the loveliest of Australian rodents”. While its loveliness might be in the eye of the beholder, it’s certainly among the most tenacious, being adapted to some of the driest, most inhospitable country: the stony gibber deserts and cracking clay soils of the Lake Eyre Basin.

There, it can survive without drinking, obtaining water from food starches, aided by its highly concentrated urine and absence of sweat glands. During the day, colonies shelter from predators and the intense heat in complex burrow systems that can be more than 40 kilometres long, yet separated from each other by only a matter of metres, interconnected by runways on the surface.

Plains Rat. Minden Pictures/Alamy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Not that water is a problem for the plains rat right now. Surveys at Andado Station, a cattle property in the south-east of the Northern Territory abutting the western edge of the Simpson Desert, are showing a spike in numbers following unseasonal winter and spring rains. And it’s places such as Andado, and animals like the plains rat, that are helping prompt a rethink of how we might save what is left of our desert fauna.

It’s well known that Australia has one of the worst mammal extinction rates in the world, with 30 species – more than 10 percent – lost since European settlement. Many more are at imminent risk of extinction. What might seem unusual is that most of those extinctions have occurred in our remote areas, far from the major urban centres of the eastern seaboard.

Cats and foxes take much of the blame, but the causes of the ecological catastrophe are multifaceted. Changed fire regimes are a big problem, so too overgrazing, not only by cattle but feral herbivores including rabbits, goats and camels. But there’s another, more subtle factor at play: in a country of climatic extremes, our native fauna often rely on small pockets of the landscape in which to take refuge during drought.

Once, the Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) was thought to be far more widespread, from the western slopes of the Great Dividing Range straddling Queensland and New South Wales, and from the Nullarbor east all the way to the mouth of the Murray. It’s thought to have declined by up to 90 per cent since European settlement, and it’s nationally listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

Andado – where the gibber plains of the Lake Eyre Basin, the sand dunes and spinifex of the Simpson Desert and the runout of the Finke River all intersect – is a plains rat refuge, a place where it has always survived through the bleakest times. It booms and busts according to prevailing conditions; at least some of the historic records from further afield were probably never an indication of stable populations.

Overlooking Andado swamp at dusk, Andado Station, March 2015

Many of our arid-zone animals and birds have existed this way forever. The Flock Bronzewing, a pigeon that still occasionally darkens desert skies in aggregations of hundreds of thousands, is one. The Long-haired Rat is another, and the Letter-winged Kite – the world’s only nocturnal hawk – follows its periodic irruptions: as the rats spread, only to die off as conditions return to normal, so too do the kites.

It follows, then, that if a refuge is excessively degraded or disturbed, we go a long way to wiping out the animals that depend upon it, too. The difficulty is in identifying these areas. A refuge may be not much more than a dot on the map. It has taken a century, for example, to locate a stable, apparently sedentary population of the Night Parrot, long believed extinct. And refuges vary from species to species.

Dr Diana Fisher, a fellow at the University of Queensland’s school of biological sciences, is trying to map where these areas are. She points out that a species refuge “might not look much different to the rest of the landscape, but there’s something about it that protects them, not just from the dry conditions, but also predators and disease”.

Finding out where feral predators themselves eke out a living during bad times is helpful, too. “Cats are very good at surviving in the desert, but they have some limitations where they don’t do as well with very hot conditions,” Fisher says. “They have to find a refuge themselves, so finding where [they are] might enable us to use that information to control them.”

Non-government organisations such as the Australian Wildlife Conservancy have had some success creating their own wildlife refuges: heavily fenced areas, purged of feral animals, with surviving populations of native fauna such as the Woylie, a species of bettong, reintroduced from other areas, in miniature simulacrums of what the Australian landscape might once have looked like.

“There is now consensus at a policy and scientific level that a network of feral predator-free areas are required,” says Atticus Fleming, chief executive of the conservancy. He points to the Bilby. “The Bilby now lives in less than 5 percent of its original distribution and the population’s estimated at less than 10,000,” he says. “About 15 percent of the world population is on AWC land in feral predator-free areas.”

Again, feral predators are only one part of a more complex picture. While the Bilby needs all the help it can get to survive in Queensland’s Channel Country, it seems to be comfortably outlasting cats in the even more inhospitable Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia.

Different stressors on different species rarely work in isolation. “We’ve already lost a lot of things – [many of] the bandicoots [including the bilby] and that sort of range of animals have gone, but defining what the disturbance would have to be to make those things disappear is the tricky one,” says Alistair Stewart, a fauna scientist with the Northern Territory’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Occasionally, it might be more straightforward. “There is potential for mining to be so selective that it could have a devastating effect – the footprint size of an open-cut mine could encompass one of these entire refuges,” Stewart says. Generally, though, that’s a bigger danger for our microfauna – hidden, less mobile invertebrates such as land snails – than it is for mammals and birds.

Refuges also might not function as well as before. They may be degraded by overstocking. In drought, the better-watered parts of the landscape support livestock as well as wildlife, putting pressure on smaller, less genetically diverse populations. And animals that disperse after rain are more easily wiped out by predators elsewhere. The result is that the booms aren’t as big and the busts are longer lasting.

The Letter-winged Kite is one species that has suffered, undergoing an almost imperceptible decline over the past 30 years. This graceful raptor breeds in colonies mostly in the Strzelecki and Diamantina River systems, dispersing across the continent during boom times. Now it is rarely seen outside its core range: cats have been observed in the bird’s nest trees, wiping out chicks and stifling population growth.

Not all of our fauna operates like this and not all refuges are climatic. Mountains and areas of rocky scree serve the same function. Fire doesn’t spread so quickly and it’s easier to make a quick escape from predators. In the MacDonnell Ranges west of Alice Springs, the Black-footed Rock Wallaby is locally common, whereas a subspecies in the West Australian wheat belt is in dire trouble.

Mark Carter, an Alice Springs-based ecologist and guide, says animals such as the Long-tailed Dunnart – which truly is one of our loveliest marsupial mice, with a jauntily crested tail more than twice its body length, thought to be used as a balancing rod – might once have been far less strict in terms of its habitat requirements, but now survives in only the most rugged parts of the landscape.

Fisher backs this, saying there is evidence that there are few predators in rocky areas. “That’s a protective thing, perhaps, for things like rock wallabies and northern quolls. And also maybe it’s a better fire environment. But we’re not sure yet if it’s just the rugged habitat – there are fewer cats, and it’s easier for the animals to escape – or if there’s more vegetation, because the fire doesn’t get in there as much.”

The key point, Carter says, is that these safe havens are often not in the form we imagine and not where we might imagine them to be. “The one thing they’ve all got in common is that they’re extremely vulnerable. It wouldn’t take much to just completely wreck them for the animals that are so dependent on them.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 3 December 2016

All things dull and ugly

The headline on the Climate Spectator website said it all. “Approval of Adani’s mega coal mine overturned – for a skink and a snake, not a fried planet,” it read. The federal court’s decision, it went on, came down to “protecting two animals you’ve probably never heard of”: the Yakka Skink and the Ornamental Snake.

The trade minister, Andrew Robb, apparently suffering from reptile rage, described the skink as a “patsy”, implying that opposition to the mine was based on a hatred for coal more than concern for a lizard that is rarely seen even by herpetologists. (The best way to find one is to look for the little piles of poop outside their burrows.)

Not since former Victorian premier Jeff Kennett called the Orange-bellied Parrot a “trumped-up corella”, when its critically endangered status proved problematic to the planned relocation of a chemical plant, have we seen such disdain heaped upon a critter for getting in the way of development.

Kennett’s attitude to the parrot – which has a wild population of about 35 – summed up the general care factor towards any animal that’s smaller than a whale and not as cute as a koala. Species such as the Leadbeater’s Possum and Tasmanian Devil have benefitted from broad public recognition. The skink has attracted mostly derision.

But the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act isn’t just there to protect the fauna and flora that adorn our national and state emblems. The act protects the obscure as well as the iconic. Or, as Monty Python put it: “All things dull and ugly; all creatures short and squat.”

So someone has to write in defence of the skink and the snake, for they are equally entitled to the benefit of the law that was introduced by the Howard government in 1999 (in exchange for the passage of the GST). The EPBC recognises, very simply, that these animals have a inherent right to exist and deserve our protection.

Actually, the Yakka Skink is pretty cool, as far as skinks go. For most people in the cities they’re those tiny black lizards that like to make their homes in and around ours. But the Yakka Skink is a whopper, up to 40 centimetres long. Unfortunately, it lives in Queensland’s brigalow belt, which has been smashed by land clearing.

The causes by which our fauna and flora become endangered might be obvious – habitat destruction, introduced predators, environmental pollution, changes to fire regimes – but the processes are often silent, as even formerly abundant species begin vanishing before our eyes.

The Regent Honeyeater, for example, once roamed in flocks of hundreds. Now it’s down to just a few hundred individuals, total. Last month, Birdlife Australia reported that even some of our most familiar birds, such as the Willie Wagtail, Laughing Kookaburra and Magpie, were suffering significant declines.

Australia has one of the highest extinction rates in the world. We have already lost nearly 10 percent of our mammals – around 30 of approximately 380 species. Many, many more as well as hundreds of our birds, reptiles, insects, plants and even trees are in imminent danger of joining the choir invisible.

Most of them are species we will never know the names of, let alone have direct experience with. Many are poorly known, or even yet to be scientifically described. But that does not make them any less worthy. All of them play a unique role in their respective ecologies.

We are witnesses to probably the greatest mass extinction event since the age of the dinosaurs; with resources scarce, we are being asked to decide what we can and can’t afford to save. Cases like the Yakka Skink test the depth of our commitment to environmental protection.

The feral menace and asylum seekers. No, really.

The story of the Stephens Island Wren is one of the more predictable parables in the annals of extinction. The wren was a tiny flightless songbird that lived on an island measuring just 150 hectares in New Zealand’s Marlborough Sounds, and it was doomed from the moment it was proposed that a lighthouse be erected there in the late 19th century.

The lighthouse was operational by early 1894. The wren was discovered a few months later, in the jaws of the lighthouse keeper’s cat Tibbles; the species was lost forever by the winter of 1895. As the Christchurch newspaper The Press editorialised at the time, “This is probably a record performance in the way of extermination.”

For years, poor Tibbles was held responsible for nibbling his way through the island’s entire population of wrens. In fact, the island was heaving with feral cats after the accidental escape of a pregnant female in early 1894. It took another three years for them to also kill off the Stephens Island Piopio, a type of thrush.

I’m not sure which scientific or historical literature Adrian Franklin reviewed in his defence of the feral cat – he doesn’t say. Franklin claims detestation of introduced animals is linked to our national paranoia about, wait for it, asylum seekers. This seems rather a long bow to draw, but let’s come back to it later.

Franklin claims these (unnamed) scientists agree that there is no evidence linking feral cats to wild extinctions “apart from a few very exceptional island sites” – a rather cavalier dismissal of the fate of the Stephens Island Wren, but then again, it’s only a Kiwi, and I don’t mean that other flightless bird.

So why, Franklin asks, have cats not been reclassified as harmless animals? Why isn’t the innocent moggy naturalised, as in Britain? (I confess I nearly scratched my own eyes out at this point.)

Firstly, cats don’t act in isolation in the threat they pose to our native fauna. Habitat clearance, disease, grazing, changes to fire regimes, pollutants and, of course, other feral animals all play their parts. I look forward to Franklin’s defence of the fox, Cane Toad, carp, rabbit and non-native rats and roaches.

In Europe, cats, foxes and rabbits have all been part of the natural environment for millennia. That’s not the case in the Antipodes, where there are few land-based top-order predators. Introduced ones have filled the breach. In New Zealand especially, native animals have been annihilated by cats, rats, stoats and possums.

The feral problem is so bad in the Land of the Long White Cloud that many native birds – Kokakos, Kakapos, Saddlebacks and others – are now largely confined to or have themselves been introduced (at considerable public expense) to islands where foreign predators and competitors aren’t waiting to devour them.

The picture is no prettier in Australia, where we hold the world record for mammalian extinctions: 22 have been extirpated since European settlement, with over 100 more considered endangered. Cats and foxes have played a determining role in most of these. The proof can be found in Tasmania, which mostly retains its mammalian diversity (aside from the elimination of its biggest top-order predator, the Thylacine).

Until their recent accidental or malicious introduction, foxes have not existed in the island state, and Tasmanian Devils – the largest surviving marsupial predator – have probably kept a lid on feral cat numbers. The Tasmanian government has spent a fortune trying to suppress the foxes; it will need to, especially given the crash of the devil population due to facial tumour disease.

On the mainland, predator-free sanctuaries, such as those at Scotia in western NSW, are reintroducing quaintly-named animals like the Bilby, Boodie, Woylie and Numbat. Such sanctuaries may be their only hope. At Currawinya National Park in south-west Queensland, cats destroyed one of the last remaining wild colonies of Bilbies last year after a protective fence was found to have rusted.

In Arnhem Land, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy recently conducted an experiment with the near-threatened Pale Field Rat. The rats have been regionally extinct in Arnhem Land for years and had to be sourced from – surprise, surprise – predator-free Quoin Island off the Northern Territory coast.

The AWC set up two 10-hectare enclosures. One was secured with an electrified six-metre fence, the “control” enclosure was not. Twenty rats fitted with radio collars were introduced into each. Within a week of two cats finding the unsecured enclosure – captured on film by motion sensor cameras – the rats were gone.

I’m still not sure what all of this has to do with our national xenophobia over immigration. Perhaps, as one wag suggested on the Australian birdwatching forum Birding-Aus, when asylum seekers start eating us, Professor Franklin may have a point.

First published in The Age, January 13 2013