29 Jan 2021
THE FUTURE IS LOOKING UP FOR AUSTRALIA'S HAPPIEST ANIMAL
WWF's Species Conservation Project Coordinator Dr Rochelle Steven spied her first quokka thirty years ago. Now she's helping to ensure the survival of the species.
I was a wide-eyed eight-year-old and passionate about the environment when I saw my first quokka on Rottnest Island. It was amazing to observe one of our native animals at such close quarters, simply going about its daily life.
Returning to Western Australia in 2018 to work in threatened species conservation, I found quokkas every bit as cute.
These days they're a major Rottnest Island attraction and social media sensation, featuring in celebrity selfies with actors like Hugh Jackman, Chris Hemsworth and tennis champion Roger Federer. Wearing what appears to be a permanent smile, quokkas have garnered a reputation as Australia's happiest animals. I've even got a treasured selfie of my own.
From their impressive Instagram following, you'd think that Australia's smallest wallaby has every reason to be cheerful. But not near Northcliffe, WA, where a lesser known, vulnerable population of quokkas is struggling to survive. It's here that an important WWF project has been tracking the species’ recovery.
Once found across the southwest of Western Australia, quokkas now survive only in isolated pockets of forest in this region and on two small islands, including world-famous Rottnest. The dense forests near Northcliffe represent the last mainland refuge for the species. But in 2015 all but 90 odd (that's 84% of the estimated 600 resident quokkas) are thought to have perished in bushfires that razed 98,000 hectares.
WWF-Australia started investigating the impact of this horrific blaze very soon after. Sadly, we've found that the quokka population is only just starting to bounce back, some five years later. Worse still, our research suggests that this population may not fully recover until 2028.
The Western Australian Government has been working hard to control fox numbers, which threaten the mainland's quokkas. However, WWF's quokka project with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) has shown that recovering and protecting this vital population is going to take much more. Social media stardom is no guarantee of survival.
Over the years mainland quokkas have lost much of their preferred habitat and what habitat remains is very fragmented. Another bushfire or drought, the likes of which we are seeing more often under climate change, could be disastrous for this charismatic marsupial. Without linkages to unburnt patches of habitat, they can find it impossible to escape the flames.
Our research with the DBCA has confirmed that quokkas rely on a range of vegetation (mostly grasses, sedges and shrubs) to eat, regulate their body temperature during the heat of the day, and for protection from predators like foxes and feral cats.
As we're finding out, it can take many years before they feel safe enough to move back into forest recovering from fire. During that time, near Northcliffe, feral pigs have been especially challenging for recovery. Just as the bush has begun to regenerate, they've moved in, trampling fragile vegetation and effectively banishing any quokkas keen to return.
By tracking the recovery of the animals and their precious forest home, we're learning that the long-term survival of the quokka depends more than ever on stronger environmental protection laws to protect remaining habitat. It's a clarion call to the country, highlighting the fundamental importance of our flagship environmental law - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 - and the landmark review currently underway.
WWF-Australia has put forward 13 recommendations to the EPBC Act review panel. Most pressing, we believe, is the need to develop and update detailed recovery plans for all Australia's threatened species, the quokka included, and to systematically map all critical habitats - like the Northcliffe forests.
As the federal government considers the recommendations from the review’s final report, the fate of endangered species like the quokka hangs in the balance. Climate change is bearing down, bringing longer summer heatwaves, drought conditions, bushfires and flooding, and pushing many of Australia's wildlife to the brink of extinction.
We've also seen graphically in NSW and Queensland (my home state) how illegal land-clearing for agriculture compounds the problem. Between 2004 and 2017 we lost a staggering 1 million hectares in those two states, alone, without regard for the threatened species that depended on it or (in most cases) any penalty. This wanton destruction and lack of accountability simply has to stop.
If we as a nation really care about halting our animal extinction crisis - a crisis exacerbated by the catastrophic summer bushfires of 2019-20 - then we have to tackle the threats on multiple fronts, and we have to back these efforts with legal clout. Australia is experiencing some of the highest rates of species loss in the world. Only when our national laws are bolstered and properly enforced do we stand a chance of saving threatened iconic species like the koala, greater glider, black-flanked rock-wallaby, swift parrot and quokka.
I'll never forget my first quokka encounter; it's a memory I will always cherish. In fact, I think it was one of the experiences that inspired and shaped my professional career. Even as a scientist today, driven by the need for investigation, data and evidence, I am emotionally invested in helping these absolutely exquisite creatures. To be playing my part is a dream come true.
But you don't have to be a scientist to help.
The 2019-20 bushfires impacted nearly 3 billion native animals, and as seen over time with the Northcliffe quokka population, recovery from disasters cannot happen overnight. WWF-Australia has launched a bold vision to Regenerate Australia in order to restore, protect and secure a future for our iconic wildlife.
Your support for WWF's program to Regenerate Australia is one easy way you can help us to halt Australia’s extinction crisis and protect the places and animals we all love. This bold blueprint to restore, protect and future-proof our wildlife against disaster is just the roadmap for our times. And there's no better time for you to get behind it.
Another catastrophic fire could easily spell the end of quokkas on the Australian mainland - and that's a scenario too frightening for me to contemplate. Improving our land management today, supported by robust WWF research and expertise, and strengthened national environmental protection laws, at least gives them a fighting chance. In the process, it will also improve the prospects for countless other endangered species. Now that's something to smile about!