The cassowary is far-north Queensland’s flagship species for both the tourism industry and the World Heritage rainforests. It is an iconic and unique species that deserves better than the devastating carnage it faces on regional roads throughout the Wet Tropics.
Sadly, 2015 is off to a particularly bad start for the endangered – and rather large – flightless bird with at least six cassowaries killed between Mission and Bramston Beach this year. There was also another cassowary killed recently by domestic dogs on the Atherton Tableland.
Until recently, the remaining wild population was thought to be at around 2000 individuals. However, new research by the CSIRO estimates that the cassowary population may be more than double that at around 4400. But this number is spread over 730,000 hectares of potential habitat with strong populations known in some areas and few or no records from other areas.
Modern day hazards are now placing the cassowary at risk of extinction. Although they began their evolutionary journey about 65 million years ago in the forests of the former super-continent Gondwana, the cassowary risks an untimely extermination at the hands of humans.
Agricultural development saw most of their lowland habitat converted to sugar cane. More recently, urban sprawl and coastal development along the aptly named Cassowary Coast now threatens those that survived.
While the destruction of their habitat continues to this day due to the inadequacy of clearing laws, an increasing cassowary killer has remained mostly unaddressed by any government over the last decade.
Mission Beach’s Liz Gallie, who has campaigned for greater cassowary protection for ten years says that the threat from dogs and roads must be better managed. She says there have been in excess of 60 cassowaries killed by cars over the last 20 years in the Mission Beach area alone. Five recent deaths in three months attest to this.
In addition dog attacks may contribute to as many deaths as road strikes and with the increase in people and traffic to Mission Beach these threats will escalate.
Gallie, who also runs a local business making boutique jewellery, says the Cassowary Coast Council has a shameful record of not looking after its endangered icon, and that Mission Beach has followed a business as usual development model without proper consideration of the increasing threats to local cassowary populations.
Without action, she fears the so-called Cassowary Coast will lose its cassowaries.
Elsewhere, locals are growing deeply concerned that the authorities are not taking the cassowary deaths more seriously. In neighbouring Cairns Regional Council, Bramston Beach local Russell Constable has described some stretches of his local road as a cassowary slaughterhouse.
He says that at particular points on the roads cassowaries regularly cross, the endangered species faces slaughter because the local authorities have not done enough to protect them.
On a pragmatic level, Constable knows that cassowary deaths can’t be prevented outright throughout their range but special measures implemented at particular localities will reduce the number of fatal collisions.
For the last five years, Russell Constable and Liz Gallie have sought a reduction in speed limits, better signage and particular line marking to indicate cassowary hotspots. These practical, cost effective and easily implemented measures are backed up by a 2011 research report from James Cook University on cassowary traffic mitigation strategies.
However, none of its recommendations have been implemented.
Under both Queensland and Commonwealth environmental laws, the cassowary is considered endangered and at risk of extinction unless the threats are addressed. Although the threats are well known and documented, the birds continue to die prematurely.
The importance of the cassowary to the rainforest and their role in seed dispersal is also well known. It is what makes them a keystone species. This means that if we lose the cassowary, there will be long-term consequences for the World Heritage listed tropical rainforests.
Russell Constable laments that we are monitoring its demise and that all the management reports could be better used if they were cemented into the road as traffic control devices.
Both Bramston and Mission Beach areas are cassowary hotspots in a fragmented landscape. Reducing the speed limit and more visible signage are reasonable expectations to seek from local and state governments.
Throughout the coastal remnants of tropical rainforest, the cassowary already has to negotiate fences, dogs, farmland and other developments. The continued fragmentation of its habitat and resultant isolation of smaller populations combined with increasing road collision fatalities will lead to extinctions – first locally, then regionally – unless action is taken now.
This is exactly what happened in Cairns in the late 1990s. As the last corridors were severed with highways and housing, the last cassowary on Mount Whitfield in north Cairns, was killed by domestic dogs. None have returned.
To save the cassowary, nature needs stronger laws and better integration across national, state and local jurisdictions. Further, our institutions need to be capable of responding to fundamental threats. Speed limits and road signs are not a big ask to save such an iconic species from immanent extinction.