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Not seen for 50 years

The remarkable rediscovery by Eric Wilkinson

Leadbeater’s Possum was declared almost certainly extinct in 1960 as no live specimen had been seen for over 50 years, since 1909. Then, in 1961, the possum was sighted by naturalist Eric Wilkinson near Marysville, 90 minutes east of Melbourne – far from its original known habitat in the swamp forests of Western Gippsland. Previously, the last Leadbeater’s Possum was collected in 1909. Since it’s rediscovery, a great deal of interest, research and awareness has been raised among Victoria’s zoos, biologists, community groups and citizens.

The remarkable rediscovery of Leadbeater’s Possum stands as a testament to the resilience of nature and the dedication of conservationists. Once deemed nearly extinct, with no live sightings for over half a century, the species reappeared from the shadows in a moment that sparked hope and renewed commitment to its survival.

In 1960, Leadbeater’s Possum was on the brink of being consigned to the annals of extinction, with no confirmed sightings since 1909, a span of over five decades. The grim pronouncement of its probable demise echoed through the conservation community, casting a shadow over efforts to preserve Australia’s unique biodiversity.

However, in the following year, 1961, naturalist Eric Wilkinson stumbled upon a living specimen near Marysville, a small town situated roughly 90 minutes east of Melbourne. This chance encounter, occurring in an area far removed from the possum’s historically known habitat in the swamp forests of Western Gippsland, sent shockwaves through the scientific community and ignited a resurgence of interest in the species.

The sighting of Leadbeater’s Possum in a new location raised intriguing questions about its adaptability and habitat range. How had it managed to persist undetected for so long, and what implications did its newfound presence in Marysville hold for its conservation?

Since its rediscovery, Leadbeater’s Possum has become a focal point for extensive research, conservation efforts, and public awareness campaigns across Victoria. Zoos, biologists, community groups, and citizens alike have rallied together to safeguard this enigmatic creature and its fragile ecosystem.

The rediscovery of Leadbeater’s Possum serves as a beacon of hope, demonstrating that with vigilance, determination, and a concerted conservation effort, species on the brink of extinction can defy the odds and reclaim their place in the natural world. It stands as a reminder of the importance of ongoing conservation initiatives in protecting the delicate balance of ecosystems worldwide.

  • 1867
    First specimens were collected in the scrub on the banks of the Bass River in Gippsland, Victoria.
  • 1909
    LbP last collected from Sunnyside, in the high country near Omeo. The specimen was mis-identified and its significance was not realised until the 1930s.
  • 3rd April1961
    Eric Wilkinson rediscovered LbP at Cambarville and Tommy’s Bend, near Marysville in the Central Highlands
  • 1967
    Des Hackett secretly begins keeping Leadbeater’s Possums in his backyard in Blackburn
  • 1971
    LbP declared the Victorian State Faunal Emblem, alongside the Helmeted Honeyeater
  • 1972
    LbP first bred in captivity by Des Hackett
  • 2006
    Death of the last Leadbeater’s Possums in captivity in Australia
  • February 2009
    Black Saturday bushfires destroy around 45% of reserved LbP habitat and population numbers in the wild are halved.
  • 2010
    Kasia died peacefully in her sleep at just over 10 years of age at Metro Zoo, Toronto, Canada. At the time she was the last captive Leadbeater’s Possum anywhere in the world.
  • 2011
    DSE and Parks Victoria ‘rescue’ the last 3 LbP’s from Lake Mountain (a population of around 300 having been destroyed in the 2009 fires) after a feral cat is filmed hunting near their nest box and a number of animals had ‘disappeared’. They are taken to Healesville Sanctuary. One later dies from unknown causes in its enclosure.
  • 2012
    Healesville Sanctuary
    begins a new Captive Breeding Program for lowland Leadbeater’s Possums from Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve (NCR). The program’s “founders”, wild possums, were brought into captivity to establish a breeding population. The breeding program is based only on the genetically distinct Yellingbo population of Leadbeater’s Possums. (June 2022, no breeding has been reported)
  • July 2013
    Two Lake Mountain LbP’s are put on display in the Nocturnal House at Healesville Sanctuary after DEPI refuses to issue a permit to return them to their wild habitat.
  • August 2013
    Professor David Lindenmayer calls on the Victorian Government to expand the current LbP Reserve System to include all LbP remaining habitat in the Central Highlands (including areas currently available for clearfell logging) in a new Great Forest National Park.
  • April 2015
    EPBC (Federal) Conservation Status uplisted to Critically Endangered.
  • July 2015
    Action Plan states that revised Recovery Plan will be in place by mid-2016
  • November 2017
    The first hearing in the Possums’ Case in the Federal Court.
  • June 2019
    The full hearing of the Possums’ Case over three weeks in the Federal Court, Melbourne
  • June 2019
    Federal Conservation Status confirmed as Critically Endangered following an unsuccessful application to downlist by an industry lobby group. FLbP lobbies for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • May 2020
    Judgment in the Possums’ Case in favour of Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum on all counts.
  • June 2020
    Bunnings announces that it will no longer retail VicForests’ timber as a result of the court decision.
  • August 2020
    Final Orders in the Possums’ Case including declarations of unlawful logging and injunctions preventing further logging in 66 coupes.
  • September 2020
    VicForests lodges appeal on 31 grounds.
  • October 2020
    Translocation trial of Lowland LbP to Wallaby Creek in Kinglake National Park. After early indications of success, trial abandoned due to predation by a cat and remaining animals returned to Yellingbo.
  • April 2021
    VicForests appeal heard in Sydney.
  • May 2021
    VicForests appeal allowed on one ground. Other findings of fact were not disturbed and the award of costs against VicForests was upheld.
  • June 2021
    FLbP filed application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court.
  • September 2021
    Again, FLbP lobbies minister for release of revised Recovery Plan
  • November 2021
    A second translocation trial established at a site north-east of Mansfield.
  • December 2021
    Application for Special Leave to Appeal to the High Court refused.
  • June 2022
    FLbP lobbies new Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek, for release of revised Recovery Plan

Eric Wilkinson celebrates 60 years since his remarkable rediscovery by cutting a ceremonial cake at the annual Friends of Leadbeater’s Possum Rediscovery Picnic at Cambarville in April 2021.
Photo: A Fletcher.