A Rat by Any Other Name

Take a moment and picture a common Australian animal. Here are some clues – it’s small. It lives in rivers and waterways, where its dense fur coat and thick tail make it a sturdy swimmer. It’s shy, staying hidden during the day (less so in winter, when a streamside sunbeam makes a perfect spot to warm up and bask). It eats whatever insects and crustaceans it can fit through its broad, flattened mouth.

Up to this point (if you skimmed past the article title), you might be imagining either one of two Australian natives. The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is a familiar emblem of Australia’s creeks, delighting tourist and local alike whenever there’s a spotting. And rightly so – with a soft body, sleepy expression, and harmless appearance, the platypus enjoys a charisma that keeps it in the good graces of the public. This is despite the males having poisonous spurs that can induce months of pain untreatable by morphine.

The Australian platypus in action.  Image: Museum Victoria

The Australian platypus in action. Image: Museum Victoria

However, this isn’t another article about the platypus (and its problematic pluralisation – is it platypi? Platypodes? Platypuses?). It is about language though; the way a species can be perceived, and marketed, and raised as a focal point for campaigns of conservation or destruction.

Hydromys chrysogaster was first described in 1804, at a time when Europeans were still acquiring the vocabulary for Australia’s unique ecosystems. Wombats were native badgers; koalas were native sloths; thylacines were native wolves, and later tigers. The platypus was a beaver, a mole, a bird, a fish, and a hoax, before eventually settling on flatfoot (platypus), bird-snout (Ornithorhynchus), and duck-like (anatinus).

By contrast to the majority, H. chrysogaster was an easy job – in English its name means yellow-bellied water mouse, and it is indeed a member of the mouse family. But for its size, and in the interest of comprehension to foreign naturalists, it was called the Australian water rat.

Ornithorhynchus anatinus , the duck-like bird snout.  Image: NMA

Ornithorhynchus anatinus, the duck-like bird snout. Image: NMA

Hydromys chrysogaster,  the yellow-bellied water mouse.  Image: Museum Victoria

Hydromys chrysogaster, the yellow-bellied water mouse. Image: Museum Victoria

When the English colonised Australia, they saw a vast expanse of opportunity and resources. Modern corporations like the Australian Agricultural Company and the Van Diemen’s Land Company started during the early 19th century, raising cattle and sheep for export back to Europe. The dominant thought – public and private, small and large – was of expanding an empire.

As the frontier of farming communities pushed outward, native landscapes and species suffered. Most famously, Australia saw the extinction of the thylacine after a century of conflict. The Tasmanian tiger was subjected to loss of territory, loss of food, diseases from dogs, and – perhaps most significantly – private and government-sponsored bounties for extermination. The thrill of tiger-hunting was a part of the worldwide British Empire; Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is a monument to the mood, with human’s triumph measured by the death of the villainous tiger.

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on  the   Tasmanian   tiger.   Image:  http://nichaygarth.com/

Frontier men of the early 1900s earned their stripes collecting bounties on the Tasmanian tiger. Image: http://nichaygarth.com/

Animal hunting also had more pragmatic motivations. As late as the 1940s, when the threat of extinction had begun affording Australian wildlife protected status, the fur of the water rat was being used for clothing. The Powerhouse Museum in Sydney holds a coat made from one hundred H. chrysogaster pelts, collected personally by the coat’s owners on personal holidays. The rat was vermin; was common; was not given the unqualified status of other animals. In Victoria, destruction permits in irrigation areas and seasonal hunting permits were issued until 1967; the species had been placed on a protected list earlier in 1938 after the fur trade drove a decline in number.

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum.  Image: Powerhouse Museum

The rakali coat held in the Powerhouse Museum. Image: Powerhouse Museum

Rebranding the Hydromys with other names, like the ‘Australian otter’, has helped its image simply by providing the public with a different point of reference in understanding its lifestyle. In the 1990s, a (perhaps obvious) decision was made to use Indigenous Australian names for Australian animals – from consulting the ancestral languages across its range, Hydromys was given the name of rakali.

Creating public awareness of the species is important; rakali is an elusive species, with attempts to monitor the population only resulting in trapping rates of 6-30% and usually as a by-product of platypus surveying. However, there is an indication that the species is experiencing population crashes in regions across Australia. An aquatic species is always only tenuously secure in Australia’s climate, and the rakali are vulnerable due to their breeding cycle being broken by drought. The design of modern irrigation channels also creates difficulties, with concreting or plastic lining depriving rakali of opportunities to dig burrows.

The Australian Platypus Conservancy has begun delivering seminars on rakali to local councils, recognising the overlapping benefits of restoring habitat. The apex predator flourishes best in healthy waterways, functioning as a barometer for management regimes. Creating public awareness is also a useful way for more people to understand their own interactions with the environment, for better or worse. The continued use of the popular Opera House nets – and their use is banned in all Victorian public waters – causes the drowning deaths of rakali that become stuck in them, a fate often shared by platypuses and turtles. More positively, the anecdotal evidence of citizen sightings is helping to build a clearer picture of populations across Melbourne and across the year, and can be incorporated into more widespread projects such as Bowerbird and the Atlas of Living Australia.

The wonder and exoticism of Australia’s wildlife has not diminished since it baffled those first Europeans. Through close observations, we will better begin to appreciate the rarity and individuality of our native species. And if the world can learn to love a bird-snouted flatfoot, there’s probably room for the rakali as well.

If you wish to become more involved in citizen science, you can relay your plant and animal sightings to:

Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.

Banner image courtesy of Museum Victoria. 

Facing Death: What Does Extinction Mean For Humanity?

‘If you can’t face death, then you can’t face life.’ These words ring loud and true in a play about the frightening reality of the extinction crisis and its emotional impact on Australian society. To what lengths would you go to protect something that you love? Or, more interestingly, to protect someone who is not human?

Extinction, the most recent play released by award-winning playwright Hannie Rayson, explores these enquiries, portraying the plight of Victoria’s tiger quoll population amongst the complex and passionate relationships of four people caught up in the difficult choices of conservation triage. ‘What’s worth saving…How do you choose?’ – a question that is constantly asked not just in relation to wildlife, but also the explosive social tensions that erupt between Piper the zoologist, Andy the veterinarian, Heather the ecologist, and Harry the coalmining magnate. Are careers and relationships worth sacrificing in order to save just one animal?

I was recently able to question Rayson about Extinction, particularly regarding the role that theatre plays in educating people about environmental concerns. Rayson tells me that as much as ‘arguments and beliefs’ are a part of theatre, it ‘can never be about “instruction”’. She explains that the medium of theatre is ‘about great contests of ethics and morality’, and Extinction is indeed just that. She hopes that audience members will leave the play with the motivation ‘to go into a wild place, to experience awe... [and] to feel included in these great debates of our time.'

The play begins with Harry Jewell, the owner of Powerhouse Mining, hitting a tiger quoll with his SUV on the roads of the Otways. Having grown up in the area when the species was more abundant, he has an obvious affinity for tiger quolls and is devastated by the accident. It is the first tiger quoll to be seen in the area for some time, and so begins a whirlwind of events revealing the immense complexities of trying to rescue a species from extinction. As researcher Piper portrays through her emotional frustration at the growing environmental crisis, how have we as Australians allowed the situation to reach an almost irrevocable tipping point? And how do we turn it around?

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

The question of money is subsequently central to the play. The concept of environmental accounting and sacrificing one species to save another is not new, and has also been discussed previously by Wild Melbourne. In a world where everyone speaks dollars and cents, it is only logical that we extend this language to the environment. A 1997 study placed the economic value of Earth’s natural ecosystems at $127.3 trillion, suggesting that the natural environment possesses not only aesthetic value, but an incredibly measurable and financial value as well. When Harry offers up funding from his coalmining business to Heather and Piper’s university in order to save the quoll, the scientists find themselves making the difficult decision to either accept the ‘dirty’ money or focus what funding they already have on other species with ‘better’ chances of surviving in the long run. In this sense, Extinction depicts the inevitable tug-of-war between academics, universities, and their potential sponsors. Rayson doesn’t take any prisoners when it comes to highlighting the almost unbelievable funding issues that currently exist for Australian researchers.

‘Conservation will never be a priority unless we feel deep personal connections to forests and coastlines…and native wildlife.’

So does one take the moral high ground, potentially forsaking a native species in the process, or is it easier to grab the money and run? It’s not a simple choice to make, and Extinction expertly depicts a struggle all too familiar to most: when is money more important than principles? This question draws the audience in to an emotive and, at times, brutal story, interwoven with both environmental and social ambiguities. The contrast between Andy’s illness and the plight of the quoll also provides a way for audience members to better understand how dire the extinction crisis truly is; is it reversible and when do we learn to let go? As much as Piper fervently hopes to save everything, her boss Heather tells her that it’s simply not possible. But although conservation triage may be the answer in financial terms, Piper’s optimism is admirable and cannot be underestimated. Regardless of monetary gain, Rayson says that ‘Conservation will never be a priority unless we feel deep personal connections to forests and coastlines…and native wildlife.’ Piper’s attitude is reminiscent of this idea and suggests that without appreciation, there is little hope for our natural environment.  

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Image: Arts Centre Melbourne

Why the focus on the tiger quoll though? Rayson's response was that in addition to her own very personal connection with this animal due to her love for the Otways (specifically, the ‘wild beaches and rainforests, bracing air and birds that wheel in a big sky’), the species’ integral ecological role as an apex predator is also a factor. She tells me that ‘If these guys disappear, the impact on the whole ecosystem is profound.’ Rayson also explains how her son’s generation seemed to know ‘…more about moles and squirrels than Australian wildlife.’ Things have gradually changed since then, and the fact that Rayson's play has already proven popular suggests that Australia is interested in its own wildlife. Yet it is now more important than ever for our nation’s literary industries to take the plunge into environmental territories and explore the complexities of the natural world and what its destruction means for humanity. As Rayson states, ‘Literature has such potential for telling us about the world we live in.’

There is serious need to perceive ‘our cities as environments and ecosystems too’ – not just places of wilderness.

Overall, Rayson’s work suggests that there are no winners in the extinction crisis – only losers. Harry’s interest in saving the tiger quoll and his emotional response to finding one in an area where they were deemed gone forever shows that – contrary to popular opinion – even mining magnates have hearts. Those with a dollar to gain are also at risk of losing it all if we don’t prevent further environmental devastation. The extinction of a species therefore does not affect the ecosystem and the environmentalists alone – it is frightening to us all, mirroring the instability of life, whether that of the human or non-human. The human experience is intertwined with the plight of the natural world, Rayson herself believing that there is serious need to perceive ‘our cities as environments and ecosystems too’ – not just places of wilderness.

I questioned Rayson on her personal views regarding Australia’s environmental future – did she have an overwhelmingly positive or negative perspective? Her answer was simple: ‘Hope is a moral responsibility.’ Hence, not only do we need practical and progressive action when it comes to tackling extinction – we also need optimism.    


Extinction is a Red Stitch Actors Theatre production and is currently showing at Arts Centre Melbourne. Follow this link for booking information. 

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Lucia Griggi. 

Plight of the Orange-Bellied Parrot

This is a guest post by Lauren Hall

Did you know that one of the rarest parrots in the world can be found right here in Victoria? The orange-bellied parrot (OBP) is a small, beautifully coloured ground-feeding parrot slightly larger than a budgerigar. Named for the characteristic bright orange patch on their bellies, these rare parrots are endemic to south-eastern Australia. They are also particularly unique, being one of only two parrot species in the world known to migrate long distances over open ocean.

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

A captive orange-bellied parrot from Healesville Sanctuary. Photo: Lauren Hall

Wild populations of OBPs breed in Tasmania during the summer seasons (November to March) and fly hundreds of kilometres across rough seas to spend the winter months in the coastal saltmarsh habitats of Victoria and South Australia (April to October). During their northward migration they are also known to visit the saltmarsh coast of King Island.

Although populations are considered stable despite low numbers in Tasmania, they are listed as critically endangered in Victoria, with populations experiencing a severe decline between 2000 and 2008. There is estimated to be as few as 40 to 50 birds left in the wild, with captive breeding programs being the only back-up plan to bolster numbers. The captive breeding populations are estimated to number approximately 320 birds, with the largest located in Taroona, Tasmania and in Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria.

The major cause of their decline is still largely unknown; however, the extreme difficulty of crossing Bass Straight and the major drought of 2007 are thought to be key contributors. Additionally, degradation and loss of saltmarsh winter habitat, and higher prevalence of predators on the mainland are further decreasing wild populations. The birds prefer to stay well away from human disturbances, and are losing more and more habitat due to urban expansion, farming, and grazing by invasive species, such as rabbits. Higher concentrations of feral cats and foxes on the mainland also mean that the non-breeding winter populations are particularly vulnerable to predation. As they are ground-feeding, the birds can be easily targeted whilst feeding on open grassland, seeds and low-lying shrubs.

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The stunning array of colours present on the orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

Although wild populations are continuing to decline, there is still hope for the orange-bellied parrot. The Captive Management Group for the OBP has released captive birds into the wild for the last three years in a row, once every year. The last release of 13 birds occurred in November 2015, just in time for the southward migration back to Tasmania for the breeding season. The biggest challenge of re-stocking the wild population is a loss of genetic diversity and risk of inbreeding. Currently there are geneticists from the Zoo and Aquarium Association keeping records of all captive bird genomes to help determine which birds are to be released.

What can you do to help?

Daniel Gowland, Chairman of the Captive Breeding Management Group, urges the public of Victoria to keep a vigilant eye out for orange-bellied parrots. He emphasises the importance of regular sightings for the success of the Captive Breeding Management Program. As we are now approaching April, the birds should be completing their treacherous journey across Bass Straight and will be currently landing in locations surrounding Melbourne. Now up until November is therefore the prime time for everyone in Victoria to search for these small, elusive parrots.

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The orange-bellied parrot. Photo: Lauren Hall

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The blue-winged parrot. Photo: Jan Wegener

The places that they are most likely to be sighted seem to be at the Water Treatment Plant just outside of Melbourne, or other coastal Victorian saltmarsh and farmland habitats, particularly around Gippsland. Gowland also advises that blue-winged parrots are often seen in conjunction with the orange-bellied parrots, so sightings of these birds may be an indication that the OBP is in the area. For more information on how you can help sight the OBP and report your findings, please visit Birdlife Australia's website or contact your local National Park Authority. You can also help by keeping your dogs and cats indoors during winter, especially if you live in coastal country areas.

To lose such a rare and beautiful parrot species would be devastating. On many levels, the current plight of this species unfortunately seems to be a consequence of human expansion and urban development. If we want to continue to enjoy the variety of wildlife within and surrounding the city of Melbourne, we must work together as a community to do anything we can to help save the orange-bellied parrot from the brink of extinction.

Will you be lucky enough to spot one this winter? 

Cover image taken by Lauren Hall

Inside the fence: conservation on private land with Australian Wildlife Conservancy

As I make my way down to one of Melbourne’s many trendy cafes to meet Zac Lewis, a Development Executive at Australian Wildlife Conservancy, one thing strikes me more than anything else – this is not the typical stomping ground of an employee of Australia’s largest private conservation land holder.

The modus operandi of AWC is one of on-ground action, and it’s clearly working for them. The not-for-profit conservation group manages 3.15 million hectares of land in Australia and are nearly solely responsible for the continued persistence of a number of threatened species that call our Outback home.  

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

As we chat, Zac’s passion for private land conservation quickly becomes clear: “I come from a marine ecology background, so a lot of the work at AWC was very new to me, particularly the idea of private conservation. It really does have a place though, I think, as the AWC estate protects 86% of Australia’s terrestrial bird species and over 70% of our native [terrestrial] mammal species.” As Zac points out, despite the incredible network of national parks across Australia, places like AWC’s sanctuaries are the last stronghold for a number of threatened species. Zac elaborates: “So that’s really why AWC was formed , to try and drive a new model for conservation, one that’s focused on effective conservation.”

Part of that effective conservation is ensuring as many dollars as possible that AWC spends are contributing directly to on-ground conservation. In order to achieve this, AWC’s sanctuary managers are accountable for every dollar they spend, with every action rooted in driving an ecological return. As Zac describes, “science is a critical part of that accountability. Really, we want to measure what we do, to see if it’s working and if it’s not working how we can adapt so it does.” Obvious things, really, but difficult on a shoestring budget.  

Despite the absolutely pivotal role AWC play in protecting and restoring Australia’s biodiversity, they have some challenges of their own.

I talk to a lot of people and, despite us being the largest private landowner for conservation in Australia, some people have never heard of us.

Part of this is a factor of the Conservancy’s business model. As Zac explains; “we spend 85% of our funding in the field and… [comparably] very little on marketing.” As a result, word-of-mouth is their major tool for garnering support and awareness for their work across the country. This can be challenging for AWC, given the vast majority of their fundraising is spent on direct conservation action.

Like many other charities, AWC are exploring more innovative sources of fundraising, which is proving to be successful. One particularly successful event, says Zac, was an attempt to bring science and art together called ‘Five artists, Seven days’: “[We sent] five prominent Australian artists up to our Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were there seven days for some inspiration and did a lot of painting and sculpting. We held an exhibition in Sydney in collaboration with the artists and their galleries and a proportion of the proceeds was donated to AWC.”

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Zac reiterates throughout our conversation that AWC prides itself on measuring everything it does. It’s their point of difference and, according to Zac, part of what makes them so successful. “We’re in a resource-limited industry,” Zac explains, so they need to keep focused on ensuring their money is being used to deliver outcomes. That is, being able to show people that their support is making a difference. Zac reiterates that “the onus really is on us to be able to show what’s being achieved and demonstrate we are making a tangible, measurable difference to our endangered wildlife. For example AWC conducts annual biodiversity surveys across our sanctuaries to monitor the populations of many endangered species and ensure the graphs are heading in the right direction”.

Part of showing the work achieved by AWC, Zac says, is framing conservation challenges and progress in an effective manner: “People talk about conservation as, kind of, this problem that’s bigger than Ben Hur. For AWC, we focus our work on the key threats that are driving the extinction of many endangered native animals in Australia. Feral cats, for example, kill tens of millions of native animals per day across Australia. Our work focuses on integrating the management of these threats to our native wildlife like feral cats, wildfire and invasive weeds so that we can have the greatest impact.” Otherwise, according to Zac, you’re taking a scattergun approach to management.

Towards the end of our lunch, the conversation steers toward the future direction of AWC. Zac’s eyes light up noticeably as he excitedly describes some of the organization’s next steps, including the expansion of an existing sanctuary and an exciting partnership with the NSW Government. 

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary (Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary
(Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Some may be disappointed to hear that Victoria doesn’t feature in AWC’s plans in the near future, but it’s for very good reason: “I think a lot of [donors and supporters] want to see a presence in Victoria. But it’s very hard. There’s two reasons why we’re not here [in Victoria]; the first is that land’s very expensive. We want to make landscape-scale changes and we can buy vast tracks of land in northern Australia for the price of a small property in Victoria. So that sense of scale [is important]. But also, we choose the land we acquire very carefully based on its biodiversity values so that we can get the best ecological return from our investment. A lot of the key conservation areas in Victoria are found on public land and are not up for sale.”

In those situations, partnerships with governments, like NSW, can be more effective. AWC have formed an historic partnership with the NSW Government to deliver land management and science in two NSW National Parks; the Mallee Cliffs National Park and Pilliga National Park. Despite the finer details still being settled on, AWC is planning to establish large feral predator-free areas in each park and reintroduce 10 of Australia’s most endangered native mammal species back in to these parks.

For the first time, regionally extinct animals that have not been seen for over 100 years will be returned to NSW National Parks.

The new arrangement between the NSW government and AWC is incredibly exciting. However, Zac thinks AWC’s other major focus for the short-term is just as impressive: “The big project for us over the next three years is the Newhaven project… It’s sort of a game-changing project”

AWC’s plans are simple – put in an enormous fenced exclosure at their Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Central Australia. This might sound simple, given AWC’s previous success with feral predator-free areas but, in reality, it’s a mammoth task: “At the moment, our largest feral predator-free area on the mainland is Scotia at 8000 Ha. We want to put in a 65, 000 Ha feral cat-free area at Newhaven, which is really exciting.”

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, which was previously owned by Birdlife Australia, is an area of global biodiversity significance. “Many species that originally occurred there have been lost; much of central Australia is a marsupial ghost town” says Zac. So once the fence is up and the foxes, cats and rabbits are removed, the next step is perhaps the most exciting: “We’re restoring nine endangered native mammal species to their homeland in central Australia at Newhaven, including the Greater Bilby, the Golden Bandicoot and the beautiful Mala, of which the mainland sub-species is extinct in the wild on mainland Australia.”

Apart from the prospect of reintroducing a number of locally extinct species, the Newhaven expansion is remarkable for other reasons, too. “It’s really taking the model we use now around feral cat eradication to a scale never before seen” Zac explains. Upon completion, Newhaven will be the largest feral predator-free area on mainland Australia. But, as Zac points out, this obviously doesn’t come cheap. “The first stage of the project will be to establish an 8-15,000 Ha fenced feral-free area, which will cost $3 million to put in place. The federal government has recognized the global significance of this project and have already committed $750, 000 to that first stage, so it is up to us now to raise the remaining funds.”

Zac acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead, but is optimistic given AWC’s success in Australia so far in conserving our flora and fauna.

We know we can do it, we just need to get the word out.

Cover image taken by W. Lawler at Newhaven Sanctuary, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy


Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary