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Rachel Carbonell reported this story on Tuesday, August 20, 2013 12:42:00

ELEANOR HALL: The Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria has put some of the most threatened members of its captive breeding program on public display.

The sanctuary says it wants to raise public awareness about the plight of the animals that it’s working to save from extinction. These include the Victorian state emblems: the Helmeted Honeyeater and the Leadbeater’s Possum.

But while the sanctuary tries to raise the profile of these animals, conservationists say critical habitat not far outside the sanctuary gates continues to be degraded and destroyed.

Rachel Carbonell has our report.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Now when visitors come to the Healesville Sanctuary there’s a whole new enclosure dedicated to species that are part of the organisation’s captive breeding programs.

Melanie Lancaster is Assistant Curator for Threatened Mammals.

She took The World Today to see some of the animals under her watch.

MELANIE LANCASTER: So right now we’ve just entered what we call our Fighting Extinction Aviary. We call it that because we’ve got Orange-bellied Parrots and Helmeted Honeyeaters in here. There was just one flying around. A few flying around.

RACHEL CARBONELL: One of the experiences on offer here is the chance to observe up close the feeding of the Helmeted Honeyeater.

Education Officer, Megan Wilson, helps to lure the birds closer for some food.

MELANIE LANCASTER: And here is one right now. So we have two in here. One’s got a, the way you tell them apart, one has an orange leg band and one has a purple leg band. And I’m going to get Mel to hold the stick. So this is what we get students to do.

(sound of whistling)

MELANIE LANCASTER: So the idea is that students get to see them nice and close.

RACHEL CARBONELL: If you were out in the wild you would struggle to see them this close up, wouldn’t you?

MELANIE LANCASTER: Unless you’re at Yellingbow, which is the only place that they still occur in the wild, which is about 30 minutes from Healesville Sanctuary. And when we go out there and we plant in areas where we’ve released birds and where the birds occur naturally still in the wild, it’s magic. You just, yeah, you have them flying around your head as you’re planting trees.

RACHEL CARBONELL: They’re really beautiful looking birds, aren’t they?

MELANIE LANCASTER: Yeah, they’re stunning.

RACHEL CARBONELL: So how many of these are left in the wild at the moment?

MELANIE LANCASTER: There’s about 70. This is why we have captive breeding programs for them, because all of these species are so critically endangered.

RACHEL CARBONELL: And interestingly, the two faunal emblems, the Leadbeater’s Possum and the Helmeted Honeyeater. They’re both endangered?


RACHEL CARBONELL: But they’re both, their habitat is here?

MELANIE LANCASTER: It is, yeah. So both of these guys, so Leadbeater’s Possums are up in the central highlands as well. But Helmeted Honeyeater’s and Leadbeater’s Possums both exist still out in the wild at Yellingbow, which is just about half an hour down the road.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Dr Lancaster says the biggest issue facing this little bird is degraded and fragmented habitat.

MELANIE LANCASTER: The Yellingbow habitat is surrounded by farmland, not really connected to a lot of other forests nearby. And probably hasn’t had ideal management over time to, yeah, to really keep that habitat pristine. Although Parks Victoria and Department of Environment and Primary Industries are the carers of that property, and are very active with conserving it now.

RACHEL CARBONELL: What’s the aim of the captive breeding program here with the Helmeted Honeyeater and how successful is that?

MELANIE LANCASTER: So this is one of our classic breed for release programs. Every year we have around 15 pairs of Honeyeaters and we breed them and release somewhere between 15 and 25 chicks each year.

I think we can, in terms of success, I think we can say that having our captive breeding program and releasing chicks every year probably prevented the species from going extinct in the wild, but having said that their numbers are still low.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Victoria’s other faunal emblem, the Leadbeater’s Possum, is also one of the threatened species now on display here.

Its habitat is in the old trees of the ash forests that surround the sanctuary.

Scientists and conservationists say a combination of severe bushfires and logging has destroyed much of their habitat and the animal is in real peril.

Paul Sinclair from the Australian Conservation Foundation says Victoria is failing in many areas to protect the habitat of threatened species.

PAUL SINCLAIR: I think that the main challenge we have is protecting the homes or habitat of wildlife in Victoria. That’s the key challenge. And it’s really not that hard to understand. If I come around to your house and drive a bulldozer through it, your ability to live life is going to be seriously impacted.

It’s no different to a Leadbeater Possum or any other threatened species. If you drive a bulldozer through its house, it’s got nowhere to live and its chance of survival is much less.

RACHEL CARBONELL: Sarah Rees is Director of the Healesville-based conservation group My Environment.

SARAH REES: We have a precedent being set here where we’re prepared to send a species to extinction, for resource extraction. That is a huge issue that we have a Commonwealth country prepared to sanction that.

So I think what we’ve got to do here is arrest this problem, demonstrate Australia’s not prepared to back extinction for resource extraction.

And so I do think in the sense that we are a litmus test for how governments should respond when there’s a crisis and when science is telling us we should reverse, we should reverse.

RACHEL CARBONELL: The Victorian Government has set up a Leadbeater’s Possum advisory group, aimed at helping to recover the species.

It declined to comment on calls for an end to clear felling of ash forests in the Central Highlands but said in a statement that the state’s forests are among the best managed and most protected in the world.

The state owned logging corporation, VicForests, says it’s working with stakeholders to address concerns about Leadbeater’s Possum habitat and has set aside substantial areas of forest.

The Federal Coalition Environment Spokesman, Greg Hunt, says his party would create a threatened species commissioner.

A spokesperson for the Federal Environment Minister, Mark Butler, says Labor is committed to moving to an increased use of strategic assessments, to aid the mechanisms already in place aimed at protecting vulnerable species.

ELEANOR HALL: Rachel Carbonell with that report.