Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Southern Cassowary - Death by 1,000 cuts

Hello again readers. This story begins with a warning and I need you to read this.

The following story contains graphic pictures of dead and injured southern cassowaries. The images are not pretty but then again neither is the future for the cassowaries if our Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett AM MP neglects his legal and moral duty to protect these endangered birds at Ella Bay. This article looks at the reality of the situation facing these endangered birds, a reality many developers and perhaps the government would prefer you to remain ignorant of.

Ok so you're still here! Good to see.

Well today I would like to talk about the 3 major threats facing cassowaries in this region and in particular Ella Bay of course. They are habitat loss/fragmentation, vehicle strike and dog attack.
The beautiful Southern Cassoway (Photo by Liz Gallie)

Habitat loss and fragmentation

As many of you know Kofron and Chapman assessed the decline of the endangered southern cassowary and found that only 20 to 25% of their former habitat remained in Queensland in 2006. They directly stated that habitat loss and fragmentation is the number 1 reason for this birds decline.

Aerial photography in 1992 and 1997 plus groundwork conducted by Dr Andrew Small in 1998 found 42% of critical freehold cassowary habitat was cleared at Mission Beach during those 6 years. As I will mention later Mission Beach sets a precedent that does not bode well for cassowaries living on or near to the proposed 450 hectare urban/resort development at Ella Bay.

Talking of Ella Bay the developers there committed to planting 500,000 native trees on page 20 of their Environmental Impact Statement 2007 (PDF). On 21 March 2009 in the Innisfail Advocate Satori Chairman Mr Rod Lamb stated “the development will include more than 250,000 trees and shrubs”. I leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Of course the other tactic some developers use to gain permission to bulldoze cassowary habitat is to offer to give land back to government that developers can’t economically use in return for permission to destroy valuable cassowary habitat on land that can be used.
Destroyed Cassowary habitat (Photo by Liz Gallie)

A variation of this is to offer to plant lots of baby trees on some land and swap it for permission to destroy cassowary habitat that has taken thousands of years to establish. I personally find this activity unacceptable and it is the equivalent of sanctioning a murder if the offender promises to father lots of children!

Let’s face it if you could create rainforest and cassowary habitat by planting a few acres of seedlings why aren’t developers going out and buying old cane farms and doing just that? It would be simple when you think about it. The problem is it takes thousands of years to create a rainforest. I believe developers will always prefer to chop up existing habitat to create eco type resorts as it’s the only viable method at their disposal considering the time and expense needed to create such habitat from scratch.

Vehicle Strike

As much as I admire the southern cassowary I have to say with regards to traffic it is a stupid stupid bird! They are absolutely hopeless when it comes to judging vehicle speeds and predicting a vehicles arrival. Many scientists believe they cannot visualize more than a second or 2 into the future and I would have to agree with them.
Cassowary crossing (Photo by Karl Dekok)

Vehicle strike is the number 2 threat to the endangered southern cassowary. The cassowaries total lack of road sense and man's incursion into their home territory with roads and traffic is a recipe for disaster.
Again let’s take a look at Mission Beach. From February 1986 to September 1988, 17 cassowaries died as a result of vehicle strikes on roads at Mission Beach. Between 1987 and 1998 approximately 40 cassowaries died from vehicle strike at Mission Beach. More recently unpublished QPWS data records 28 cassowary road deaths at Mission Beach between 2001 and 2005. This problem is not going away no matter how much time scientists devote to recording the data.
Car strike victim - Euthanased later (Photo by Campbell Clarke)

Taking into account cassowaries slow reproduction, lengthy parental care period and low juvenile survival rate each death impacts on the entire population’s reproductive dynamics and population viability.

Let’s take a look at what the Department of Environment Water Heritage and the Arts have to say about vehicle strike.
Vehicle Collisions
”Roadkill is the major cause of known Southern Cassowary mortality in the Wet Tropics area. Over a two year period from 1990 to 1992, 14 Cassowaries, including seven adults, four sub-adults and three chicks were killed on the region's roads (Bentrupperbäumer 1998 cited in Buosi & Burnett 2006). Between January 1992 to June 2005, 53 Southern Cassowaries of all age classes are known to have died on roads in the Mission Beach area (QPWS unpublished data cited in Buosi & Burnett 2006) while the National Recovery Plan (Latch 2007) details that between 2001–2005, car strike accounted for 76% of all deaths of Southern Cassowary in the Mission Beach area. The risk of roadkill is exacerbated by urban encroachment and people hand-feeding birds (Buosi & Burnett 2006).”
A lesson our Federal Environmental Minister can learn from Mission Beach is simply don’t go putting new roads through cassowary habitat if you don’t have to!

Yet this is exactly what is being demanded at Ella Bay. New roads need to be put in to service the forecast population of approximately 5000 people and you can bet your bottom dollar the cassowaries will be the ones to suffer for such foolishness. There is no alternative at Ella Bay as the property is currently served by a single narrow unsealed road which passes through world heritage national park. Not only will the widening or replacement of this road result in further habitat loss for the cassowaries but it will bring fast moving traffic to the area, a whole new hazard for Ella Bay’s cassowaries. As the construction of this urban/resort development will take from 10 to 15 years to complete you can be sure the roads would be heavily used by construction vehicles as well as residents and staff.

Feral/Domestic Dog Attack

It’s a fact that wherever humans settle our four legged friends will follow, both invited and uninvited. Dog attack is the number 3 threat to our cassowaries. Looking at Mission Beach again you find 5 cassowaries killed between February 1986 and September 1988. Feral dogs are a problem in the wet tropics and are attracted to human settlements.
Dog attack victim.

The Department of Environment Water Heritage and the Arts state the following on their website:
Interactions with dogs
"Dog attacks may cause injury and death of birds as well as potentially affecting Southern Cassowary behaviour. An adult Southern Cassowary is able to defend itself against most lone dogs. Sub-adults and chicks, and birds attacked by multiple dogs, are much more susceptible to mortality. Since 1992, around six or seven Southern Cassowaries are known to have been killed by dogs in the Mission Beach area (QPWS unpublished data cited in Buosi & Burnett 2006; Latch 2007) but it is likely that the real number is higher, as attacks may go unnoticed or may not be reported by dog owners. Deaths from dog attack may have contributed to the extinction of Southern Cassowaries in the Whitfield Range area (Buosi & Burnett 2006). The risk of attack is increased in areas adjacent to residences, agricultural land and in areas where dogs are used for pig hunting (Buosi & Burnett 2006).”
When faced with this problem the proponent has suggested that all dogs on the Ella Bay property be fitted with satellite tracking collars. I doubt this technology will protect a cassowary however it may help you locate your dog and the dead or maimed cassowary after the event.

Recently the proponent has suggested that no dogs be allowed on the property however I find fault in this approach due to the difficulties in enforcing these rules. The beach area which is used by cassowaries and marine turtles is not owned by the resort and therefore the proponents can not realistically prevent domestic dogs from using this beach.

Interestingly the dog attack story described on this blog by Liz Gallie occurred on a similar beach to Ella Bay.
Off leash dogs allowed to roam near beach used by cassowaries.

Feral dogs will also be attracted to urban populations at Ella Bay. Where there are humans there will be food and shelter.
Feral dog at Bramston Beach

I have personal experience with this problem as recently wildlife at Bramston Beach was devastated by a pack of approximately 8 wild dogs that were only stopped by a trapping and baiting program conducted by local council and the EPA. Indeed the wild dog in the photograph was trapped and humanely destroyed by council workers within metres of my home.

In conclusion

The forces which threaten to destroy Ella Bay’s cassowaries can all be observed and understood if one cares to look a little south at Mission Beach. Identical threats are slowly destroying the Mission Beach cassowary population (40 to 50 adult birds) right now and conservation group C4 has spent years fighting an uphill battle with the painfully slow process of policy change.

Without policy change/enforcement and a government committed to putting the needs of endangered southern cassowaries ahead of the often unsustainable demands of property developers the southern cassowary is doomed to a death of 1,000 cuts.
(Photo by Di Paul)

Our Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett AM MP need not make the same errors of judgment made by those that came before him. When considering the proposed property development at Ella Bay he is armed with thousands of pages of studies and research in places like Mission Beach that warn of what happens when we allow urban/resort development to encroach on cassowary territory.

I trust he will do the right thing by Ella Bay’s endangered cassowaries and say no to the urban/resort development that hangs by a horse hair over the heads of Ella Bay’s cassowaries like a sword of Damocles.

Extinction is forever.

Russell Constable


  1. Thank you for this post. It breaks my heart to think of the odds that these beautiful birds face, just to survive.

    I hate to think of them being hurt. Extinction is forever... so true, so impacting. Just like the whales, which get a lot of media attention, there needs to be more media attention for these wonderful birds.

    Amanda (with the blonde 4-legged 'friendly' lab).

    ps. We are now extremely priveleged to live right on the beach at Flying Fish Point! :o)

  2. Hey Amanda I miss your Blog and stories about your handsome blonde companion.
    Hey I saw your husband pick up a catfish skull on the beach ages ago and if you look on the inside of it(if he still has it) you will see a crucifix! I will blog about this one day.
    Hey I took a video of a cassowary at Ella that you can see on you tube and also a pack of 3 dingoes just search you tube under Ella Bay.
    Glad to hear you are still in the area and hopefully still getting to the bay(seeing as it is your favorite place).
    Drop me an email some time at the MSN address if you want and I will email you a photo of the crucifix catfish skull..they are pretty interesting!


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