Mourn our lost mammals, while helping the survivors battle back

The thylacine is just one of Australia’s mammals to disappear since European settlement. Wikimedia

There was a plague of them and one night I got approximately 300 which had been poisoned in the garden during night. This went on for two or three years.

Take a second and have a guess what animal species this quote might be referring to. Here’s a hint, the quote is from western Victoria, Australia, during the 1800s.

What did you guess? A house mouse, or another introduced species like a rabbit?

In fact, the quote refers to a native mammal species, the eastern quoll. A species that was “one of the commonest animals” in southeastern Australia, a species that would plague, is now officially extinct on the mainland. It has been more than 50 years since a confirmed sighting.

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world. More than a third have become extinct since European settlement​, or are currently threatened with extinction. But what about the survivors? And what can we do to prevent further losses?

Research by David Peacock and Ian Abbott has shown that the eastern quoll, Dasyurus viverrinus, was once extremely abundant on mainland south-eastern Australia, but it has not been seen on the mainland for over 50 years. Michael Barritt & Karen May

A lost world

Few Australians would appreciate just how much our native mammal communities have changed since European arrival more than 200 years ago. Early quotes from books and newspaper articles like the one above, painstakingly collated by researchers, offer some insight.

Early explorers made similar notes about abundant mammals because their dogs were “completely distracted by the numbers of wallabies, paddymelons and kangaroo rats that bounded off on all sides”.

Their poor horses would struggle through the sandy soils that were “full of Wallabi holes”.

Such quotes describe an Australian landscape rich in native wildlife. A landscape that, owing to the decline and extinction of so many mammal species, has radically changed.

The abundant mammals that distracted the dog and made life difficult for the horse probably refer to species long gone. According to researchers, the burrowing bettong, which is now extinct on mainland Australia, was probably the “kangaroo rat” responsible for those pesky holes.

The “paddymelons” and wallabies are probably the eastern hare and/or bridled nailtail wallabies; the former now extinct, the latter now restricted to a few pockets across eastern Australia.

Gone from this earth: Four of the 30 Australian mammal species that have gone extinct since European settlement. The desert rat-kangaroo (top left), the eastern hare-wallaby (top right), the white-footed rabbit-rat (bottom left), and the pig-footed bandicoot (bottom right).

On the bright side

Even with the sad loss of so many native mammals, Australia retains a suite of truly fascinating species, many of which occur right among us.

In Melbourne’s suburb of Cranbourne, populations of southern brown bandicoots persist, fossicking in people’s gardens and dining from dog’s bowls by night.

Species of flying fox survive in our inner cities and darken the dusk sky as they leave their colony for their nightly foraging.

In most major capitals, some possum species are so common as to be an annoyance to many as they bound over roofs and devour prized roses.

Less raucous but arguably more striking sugar gliders and striped possums occupy urban parks, while a range of species of pygmy possums and hopping mice live on in our parks and reserves.

A diverse array of kangaroo species still bound through rural landscapes, sharing paddocks with wombats, echidnas, dingoes and koalas. Platypuses fish for yabbies in farm dams nearby.

The survivors. Australia retains a unique and fascinating mammal fauna, including these species: the sugar glider, western pygmy possum, dingo, spinifex hopping mouse, striped possum, and common wombat. Sugar glider- Angus McNab, western pygmy possum - Lauren Brown, dingo- Bobby Tamayo, spinifex hopping mouse - Judy Dunlop, striped possum - Jack Ashby, common wombat - Angus McNab

Australia is still blessed with spectacular and globally unique mammals. But we can do better.

Where to next for Australia’s mammals?

As part of the federal government’s National Environmental Science Programme, approximately A$30 million is being devoted to a Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Australia’s native mammals will undoubtedly be a focus of the hub, as many species are on the brink of extinction.

However, one thing our history of mammal extinctions has taught us is that complacency is our worst enemy. Common species go extinct, and can do so rapidly.

It’s not just about conserving threatened species. The decline of eastern quolls, and many other similarly rapid declines of common species, tell of the need to be vigilant.

On the other hand, species that are regionally extinct should not be forgotten when assessing how our conservation dollar is best spent. This is particularly true for species that perform important functional roles that benefit other species (or entire ecosystems), such as native predators. Just as complacency is to be avoided, an aversion to taking calculated risks and trying new approaches in conservation also jeopardises our species’ chances of survival. We urgently need to go further and be bold if our landscapes are to be restored.

The revival of apex predators across Europe, species such as wolves, bears and lynx, demonstrates that biodiversity change is not a one way street. Indeed, few would have predicted a predator renaissance in Europe 50 years ago. Yet, European society has deemed that predators are important to conserve and they are actively restoring them.

George Monbiot advocates for restoring or “rewilding” the natural world.

There are emerging signs that Australians are up to the task too.

The western quoll, a species that once occurred in every mainland state (now restricted to southwestern Western Australia), has been reintroduced to the Flinders Ranges, and is reproducing.

There is growing support for ambitious projects such as the reintroduction of Tasmanian Devils onto mainland Australia, both for their own conservation and to help control invasive predators, such as red foxes and feral cats. The eastern quoll also persists in Tasmania and so their reintroduction to mainland Australia remains a possibility.

Even dingoes are being recognised for considerable conservation values, and at times, their economic benefits.

Organisations are being assembled to specifically promote and support the recovery of many of our iconic apex predators.

It is time for the public, governments and non-government organisations to capitalise on this momentum and support audacious projects that seek to rewild Australia and restore its natural glory.

Let us hope that a future not so far away will see our landscapes reinvigorated by a resurgent mammal fauna.