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The vanishing

Life on land

"In March 2017 Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister asked Australia’s Environment Minister to downgrade the conservation status of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum so logging in its habitat could be expanded".

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

May 21, 2023

In a year shared between Japan and Australia, 2017, had raced by. In Australia we visited New South Wales, Victoria, the ACT (on numerous occasions) and the Northern Territory, its Central Deserts and Arnhem Land. It is the nature of Australia we reflect on here.

Christmas Island Pipistrelle

Christmas Island: In the blink of an eye

Christmas Island with its world famous Christmas Island Red Crab Gecaroidea natalis (also endemic Cocos Islands) and its horrendous offshore refugee camp.

Maclear’s Rat

Here also are numerous extinctions, a number very recent:

  • The Christmas Island Pipistrelle Pipistrellus murrayi last seen in August 2009;
  • The last known Christmas Island Forest Skink or Christmas Island Whiptail Skink Emola nativitatis died in May 2014;
  • The Christmas Island Blue Tailed Skink Cryptoblepharus egeriae is now listed as extinct in the wild where it was last seen in 2010. Its population collapsed from abundant in 1970. Happily there remained a captive breeding population;
  • The Christmas Island Chained Gecko or Lister’s Gecko Lepidodactylus listeri was last seen in the wild in October 2012 and is now listed as extinct in the wild. There is a captive breeding programme. The species was considered to be abundant as late as 1979, by 1998 it was missing from the survey;
  • The Maclear’s Rat Rattus macleari extinct in the early 1900s, in1898 it was still reported as common across the island;
  • The Bulldog Rat or Christmas Island Burrowing Rat Rattus nativitatis was last seen in 1903;

Christmas Island Burrowing Rat

  • Christmas Island Shrew Crocidura trichura last seen in 1985 and now presumed extinct;
  • Among other Christmas Island species in deep trouble is the Christmas Island Blind Snake Ramphotyphlops exocoeti last collected in 2009, no appearance in subsequent surveys;
  • The Christmas Island Flying Fox Pteropus natalis is listed as critically endangered; and.
  • The Christmas Island Emerald Dove Chalcophaps indica natalis is listed as endangered.

Dire Straits

The Bramble Cay Melomys Melomys rubicola (Torres Strait) reported as likely ‘to represent the first recorded mammalian extinction directly due to anthropogenic related climate change'. The species was last seen on Bramble Cay in 2007.

Bramble Cay Melomys, Photo Luke Leung

Possum magic?

In Australia, Possums, like species of Kangaroo, are disliked. There are 69 possum species extant to Australia, Papua New Guinea and Sulawesi.

Greater Glider, Photo Pavel German

Possums (super family Phalangeroidea) comprise the Brushtail Possums, the Ringtail Possums and the Pygmy Possums. Gliding Possums are related to Ringtail Possums. The Honey Possum is a distinct species in its own super family Tarsipedoidea.

The Australian Possums are:

  • Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus;
  • Herbert River Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus herbertensis;
  • Green Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus archeri;
  • Rock Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus dahlia;
  • Western Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus occidentalis;
  • Greater Glider Petauroides volans;
  • Yellow-bellied Glider Petaurus australis;
  • Sugar Glider Petaurus breviceps;
  • Squirrel Glider Petaurus norfolcensis;
  • Mahogany Glider Petaurus gracilis;
  • Leadbeater’s Possum Gymnobelideus leadbeateri;
  • Stripped Possum Dactylopsila trivirgata;
  • Coppery Brushtail Possum Trichosurus johnstonii;
  • Brushtail Possum Trichosurus vulpecula;
  • Northern Brushtail Possum Trichosurus arnhemensis;
  • Mountain Brushtail Possum Trichosurus caninus;
  • Scaly-tailed Possum Wyulda squamicaudata;
  • Spotted Cuscus Phalanger maculatus;
  • Grey Cuscus Phalanger orientalis;
  • Eastern Pygmy Possum Cercartetus nanus;
  • Western Pygmy Possum Cercartetus concinnus;
  • Little Pygmy Possum Cercartetus lepidus;
  • Long-tailed Pygmy Possum Cercartetus caudatus;
  • Mountain Pygmy Possum Burramys parvus;
  • Feathertail Glider Acrobates pygmaeus; and
  • Lemuroid Ringtail Possum Hemibelideus lemuroides Near threatened listing (Queensland listing - of least concern in 2017) but White Lemuroids are in deep trouble, particularly climate change related.

  • Honey Possum Tarsipes rostratus

The species in bold are of the greatest concern, but even the Brushtail Possum has suffered a significant contraction in range since European settlement.

The politics of extinction

Of the Australian species subject to political manipulation of their conservation status, Macropod, Possum, Crocodile, Duck, Parrot and Flying Fox species are high on the list, as are Koalas.

In March 2017 Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister asked Australia’s Environment Minister to downgrade the conservation status of the critically endangered Leadbeater’s Possum so logging in its habitat could be expanded.

In another Possum story (Perth Now 22/2/2015), this time the critically endangered Western Ringtail Possum:

“An adorable native WA Possum is becoming extinct “before our eyes”, yet Environment Minister Albert Jacob will not list it as critically endangered, conservationists say. The Possum is clinging to survival in three tiny pockets near Busselton, Manjimup and Albany. Documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show the Department of Parks and Wildlife estimates the Albany colony has declined 99 per cent in a decade”.

The conservation status of the Western Ringtail Possum fell from vulnerable to critically endangered, its population declining by 80 percent over the last ten years.

In Victoria the latest Possum scandal takes in the Greater Glider and the intensified logging in its remaining habitats in Victoria in the state’s Central Highlands with minimal concern for the fate of the species.

Burnt logging coupe in Victoria's Mountain Ash Forests, Photo David Blair

Land clearing in Queensland and beyond

"If it moves, shoot it, if it stands still, knock it down".

This old Australian saying is alive and well. From the slaughter of waterbirds in Victoria’s Ramsar sites, the mass slaughter of Macropod species and to the mass clearing of native vegetation, vast scale deforestation is occurring across the Australian continent.

Queensland land clearing efforts rose yet again to 400,000 hectares (4,000 square kilometers in 12 months). One senior Queensland figure proclaiming:

“It’s just like giving the land a haircut”.


“Queensland has more trees than ever". 

At the time of writing this story in 2017, nearly half of all new land clearing in Queensland had taken place in the Great Barrier Reef Catchments and as the reef and its myriad of species continues to shrink.

The catchment’s river systems, disgorging evermore chemical and nutrient detritus into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

For the years 1997 to 1999, Australian Government figures show that land clearing in Queensland at that time killed an average of 89,120,000 reptiles each year.

In 2017, what we have dreaded for a very long time, and that is clearing rates in the Northern Territory had also taken off, as have those in New South Wales where the gloves are off to environmental destruction on a vast scale, and that includes Australia’s precious wildlife.

“We chose as our emblem, the Dodo, the large waddling pigeon-like bird that once inhabited the island of Mauritius, and which was exterminated with great rapidity as soon as the island had been discovered” Gerald Durrell in the early 1970s talking about the beginnings of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust.

Just how serious the Queensland situation is, can be described in geography. Queensland is one of six Australian States and ten territories. The Northern Territory is one of the most significant cultural and natural history regions on Planet Earth. Unless things change, and fast, the future of these things are at grave risk.

All are acts of barbarism. The world deserves something better.

Note: Photographs Creative cowboy films archive except; Thylacine (National Museum of Australia), the burnt logging coupe in Victoria's Mountain Ash Forests (David Blair), Bramble Cay Melomys (Luke Leung), (the Christmas Island Pipistrelle Bat (supplied by photographer) and the Greater Glider (Pavel German).