Zoos Victoria hunts missing dragons, vanishing birds

ON THE LOOKOUT: Kangaroo Flat ecologist Richard Goonan is helping hunt critically endangered creatures. Picture: DARREN HOWE

ON THE LOOKOUT: Kangaroo Flat ecologist Richard Goonan is helping hunt critically endangered creatures. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Zoos Victoria is calling on central Victorians to help bring back a ‘cryptic’ lizard and a mimic bird from the verge of extinction. 

The regent honeyeater was once a common sight in Bendigo and the grassland earless dragon widespread across the plains of central Victoria. 

However the bird has not been seen in Bendigo for decades, while the lizard may already be lost to Victoria.  

Both are among 20 creatures Zoos Victoria has identified as ‘priority native threatened species’.

But Zoos Victoria Foundation conservation partnerships manager Chris Banks said that, worse, was the fact few people would even know.

“When people think of endangered animals, they tend to think of more iconic species like lions, tigers, giraffes and elephants,” Mr Banks said. 

“But, these little, unknown species often underpin whole ecosystems.

“And we don’t want any more terrestrial vertebrate species going extinct on our watch.” 

The Zoos’ fighting extinction campaign has taken a number of steps to make sure that doesn’t happen, including establishing captive breeding programs and even installing a cryopreservation facility to secure genetic material.

MISSING: Once a common visitor, the regent honeyeater [left] – which mimics other bird calls – has not been seen in Bendigo for decades. Picture: M COOPER

MISSING: Once a common visitor, the regent honeyeater [left] – which mimics other bird calls – has not been seen in Bendigo for decades. Picture: M COOPER

But Mr Banks said engaging community support was one of the most important ways of fighting extinction. 

“Involving people in conservation is really critical, and we find, time and time again, that the citizens of Victoria want to help, but often don’t know what to do,” he said. 

“In the greater Bendigo area, one of the most useful things people could do is report any sightings of the regent honeyeater, as you’re right on the southern edge of its current range.”

One person who has already heeded the call is Kangaroo Flat ecologist Richard Goonan.

A life-long nature lover, Mr Goonan can still recall the first and only time he saw a regent honeyeater in Bendigo, some two decades ago. 

“It was feeding on a flowering ironbark on the street, right in the heart of Bendigo,” Mr Goonan said. 

“I was a kid then but I was already a naturalist – I’ve always been interested in nature, in birds and plants – so I knew it was something pretty special.” 

That sighting was among the last of the bird in Bendigo.

Once found across the east coast of Australia, from Brisbane through to Adelaide, the regent honeyeater is now confined to small pockets of southern, inland NSW and north-eastern Victoria, Mr Banks said.

“The main problem facing this species is loss of habitat, primarily clearing of forest for timber and also for residential development and conversion of land into agricultural areas, farming and cropping,” he said. 

“Then there is also a number of impacts of changing climate, long periods of drought that affect both the capacity of the trees to grow and fruit, to produce the pollen the honeyeaters need.” 

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS DRAGON?: Zoos Victoria is calling on central Victorians to report sightings of the grassland earless dragon. Picture: PETER ROBERTSON / WILDLIFE PROFILES

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS DRAGON?: Zoos Victoria is calling on central Victorians to report sightings of the grassland earless dragon. Picture: PETER ROBERTSON / WILDLIFE PROFILES

Habitat loss is also the primary factor behind the disappearance of the grassland earless dragon – last seen in Victoria in 1969 and now confined to a few pockets of the ACT and NSW. 

“The grasslands were not seen to have any sort of value and were cleared for crops and agriculture, with any trees chopped down and used as railway sleepers or for timber houses,” Mr Banks said. 

“There was severe modification of the land by heavy grazing of sheep and the impacts of fertilizers on insect, which the lizards eat.”

Zoos Victoria recently ran surveys to rediscover the earless dragon in the plains west of Melbourne using camera technology.

It found no trace of them. But Mr Banks remains hopeful. 

“Although the last confirmed, recorded sighting was decades ago, it is a really small lizard, approximately 15 centimetres long at maximum, including the tail,” he said. 

“It’s a very cryptic little creature, and it would be easy to not see them.

“So just because we haven't found them yet, that does not mean a 100 per cent guarantee that they are gone.

“Our surveys didn't turn up any record of them, so the next step is to essentially run some sort of community campaign, asking ‘have you seen this little dragon?’”

Apart from anything else, he said, such a campaign could raise awareness of both the importance of native grasslands.

“There's some really good studies been undertaken around world which show what happens to an ecosystem when you lose these kind of insectivorous animals,” Mr Banks said.

“Numbers of insects explode, impacting on both trees and crops.” 

He said the dragon would be found in large areas of native grassland which haven’t been heavily modified, and that they preferred areas with small patches of exposed rock.

A long-term member of the Bendigo Field Naturalists Club, Mr Goonan said the dragons may once have ventured down Bendigo Creek but would have been more at home on the grasslands north of Kamarooka and west of Laanecoorie.

FLOW ON IMPACTS: Mr Goonan says habitat restoration would also help mitigate erosion.

FLOW ON IMPACTS: Mr Goonan says habitat restoration would also help mitigate erosion.

And while the recovery of that species may be decades away, if at all, the Kangaroo Flat father of two holds out hope his children could see the regent honeyeater in the not-too-distant future. 

“The efforts of Zoos Victoria are critical in staving off extinciton,” he said. 

“There’s certainly hope that we could have things species like the regent honeyeater visiting Bendigo again, but the bigger picture is that we have got to create the habitat for those species to survive. 

“We need to restore the landscape and build the stepping stones between habitats for them to move around.” 

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