Ghosts of Melbourne's Past

Melbourne’s haunted stories are the stuff of legend. Have you heard the tale of the old burial ground under the Queen Victoria Market? What about the number of hanged souls that haunt the Old Melbourne Gaol? Even Flinders Street Station is meant to be haunted, with a pale figure called ‘George’ often seen walking around Platform 10 looking for his old fishing spot on the Yarra that the station is now built on.

George, Flinders Street Station's resident ghost. Source: News Corp.

George, Flinders Street Station's resident ghost. Source: News Corp.

In Melbourne, there are ghosts everywhere.  But have you ever thought about another type of ghost whose mark remains across much of the City? For many of Victoria’s lost and nearly-forgotten species, the suburbs of Melbourne were or still are the last stronghold. But now, only their ghosts remain.

It is not known to many, but the Eastern quoll, now present in the wild only in Tasmania, was last recorded in Victoria in the leafy inner-east suburbs of Kew and Ivanhoe in the early 1960s. Some readers may even have memories of the eastern ‘native cats,’ as they were once known, It is thought that these urban-dwelling, small, carnivorous marsupials were able to escape the clutches of foxes, cats and disease for just that little bit longer compared to its cousins in the rolling hills of the rest of the state. Who knows? Perhaps Melbourne’s tunnels and alleys were quite safe for small mammals once-upon-a-time. As a current resident of the eastern suburbs, it is not too difficult to imagine the diminutive dasyurids chasing rats and mice around the banks of the Yarra River in the evening, as platypuses frolicked in the water.

One of the last eastern quolls found in Victoria. Source: The Argus / National Library of Australia.

One of the last eastern quolls found in Victoria. Source: The Argus / National Library of Australia.

Despite the widespread, negative effects of humanity on the environment, it is indeed quite perplexing how we can still offer salvation to a species’ final individuals. The bandicoot, a small ‘football-sized’ marsupial, is a perfect example of this. Much to an old farmer’s surprise, in the early ‘90s, the last known Victorian family of eastern barred bandicoots was found huddled inside old, beat-up cars at the Hamilton tip, west of Melbourne. This disheveled collection of bandicoots, in conjunction with individuals from Tasmania, are the direct ancestors of the insurance populations calling Werribee Zoo and Mount Rothwell Wildlife Sanctuary home today.  

An early-settler's staple. Source: National Library of Australia. 

An early-settler's staple.
Source: National Library of Australia. 

Similarly, some of the last strongholds for the southern brown bandicoot are the urban pockets of Melbourne’s growth areas near Cranbourne and Koo Wee Rup. It is not uncommon for residents in these areas to walk outside in the evening to find the little marsupials eating out of their dog’s food bowl. However, as urban areas are able to support fox populations at incredibly high densities, these bandicoots are now in a little bit of trouble. Funnily enough, this was not always the case. There was once a time where bandicoots were easier to catch than rabbits. So easy, in fact, that according to old newspapers they were a food staple, featuring in an array of stews and curries.

The eastern barred bandicoot is now extinct in the wild on mainland Australia. Photo: Zoos Victoria

The eastern barred bandicoot is now extinct in the wild on mainland Australia. Photo: Zoos Victoria

Obviously, the close proximity to Melbourne can be a blessing or a curse for vulnerable species. Urban areas often sustain higher fox and cat populations, as more humans often equal more food. However, perhaps more importantly, having charismatic species come into contact with a large spectrum of people can be a positive thing. One example is the grey-headed flying fox. Melbourne’s extensive Yarra Bend Park is home to one of the largest populations in Australia, thrusting the beautiful mammals into the spotlight for millions of people to appreciate. As a result, there are scores of dedicated people who survey the flying fox colony and, in extreme temperature events, conduct large-scale rescue operations.

Much of this effort transpires simply from Melbournians being aware of the flying fox’s presence. Would-be-ghosts turned flesh and blood before our eyes, it is hard not to stand in awe during their nightly convoy in search of food across our city. This kind of exposure to fauna could be part of the reason why some species have persisted longer in our urban environment, despite the challenges that go with it. By paying mind to their existence, we ensure the continuity of species, such as the majestic grey-headed flying fox, in the hope that more of our state’s unique wildlife does not become another ghost of Melbourne’s past.