05 August, 2007

ARTICLE: State's emblem nearly extinct

Peter Weekes
The Age, August 5, 2007

The tiny Leadbeater's possum, Victoria's state faunal emblem, could be extinct in a few years if its numbers continue to plummet.

The population of the tiny nocturnal animal has dropped sharply since it was listed as critically endangered in 1996 — despite a decade-long joint federal and state recovery plan to save it.

Research by Professor David Lindenmayer, of the Australian National University, has revealed that since the plan was imposed, the Leadbeater's possum population has halved to around 2000.

The Australian Conservation Foundation's Lindsay Hesketh says unless logging bans are introduced to protect the Leadbeater's habitat, Victoria will go "the same way of Tasmania, which lost its state emblem, the Tasmanian tiger, years ago".

The possum, found only in a small area in the state's Central Highlands, lives in the hollows of old mountain ash trees that can take 200 years or more to grow. An unknown number were killed earlier this year when VicForests bulldozed large firebreaks through Leadbeater's monitoring stations following the Christmas fires.

The firebreaks and other clear-felled coupes prevent breeding with nearby colonies as the possums can only jump from branch to branch in the forest understorey.

Most people have never seen the Leadbeater's possum. The last one held in captivity at Healesville Sanctuary died in 2006. Even in colonial days sightings of the possum, which has a distinctive black strip along the spine of its 20-centimetre-long body, were rare.

It was thought to be extinct after the swamps and wetlands around Bass River in south-west Gippsland were drained for farming in the early 1900s. The possum was rediscovered in 1961 near Marysville and adopted as Victoria's faunal emblem.

Professor Lindenmayer, who has been researching the Leadbeater's for more than 20 years, said the Government must improve the recovery plan, especially the creation of management areas and protection zones.

"If you have two fires in less than 20 years in a wet forest, then that forest is gone forever, and with it about $500 million in logging revenue every year. It's been crucial to 'act now' on this for the last 20 years," he said."

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