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6 Sep 11 @ 06:00am by Alex Munro

CRITICAL lessons learned breeding threatened species at Healesville Sanctuary are giving fresh hope to some of Australia’s most endangered native animals.

The zoo has just recorded its most successful breeding season, including the critically endangered mountain pygmy possum.

>>GALLERY: Healesville Sanctuary’s breeding success

Breeding programs for the spotted tree frog and northern corroboree frog also broke all previous records.

The sanctuary spends $1.5 million a year on its state-of-the-art threatened species program, which is about to undergo a significant expansion.

This will include starting captive breeding of Leadbeater’s possums, alpine skinks and expanding work with Tasmanian devils.

Sanctuary threatened species curator Melanie Lancaster said their success was giving hope to species on the brink of extinction. “Our ultimate goal is to release them back into the wild,” Dr Lancaster said. “Captive breeding is only a last resort after in situ conservation efforts.

“Our work is creating hope for some of these species, particularly the orange-bellied parrots where there are more in captivity than in the wild. It comes down to this to save them.”

The zoo is part of a network co-operating on national recovery plans for threatened species. It runs captive breeding programs for seven animals.

The programs aim to restore threatened species to the wild through captive breeding and release, combined with habitat management and restoration.

Healesville Sanctuary director Glen Holland said about half their work was behind the scenes, but that they were looking at ways of making them more accessible for visitors. “The success of our threatened species team is phenomenal and it’ll only get better,” Mr Holland said.

Leadbeater’s possums for captive breeding will be brought to the zoo in late September or early October from Yellingbo with the aim to re-introduce them to the wild in five years.

National Threatened Species Day is tomorrow, September 7.

Healesville Sanctuary’s captive breeding program

Orange-bellied parrots (critically endangered)

Habitat loss has the orange-bellied parrot on the verge of extinction, with fewer than 50 estimated to living in the wild. The small parrots migrate between Tasmania and the mainland each year, with 43 living in Healesville Sanctuary’s captive population. The zoo has bred and released more than 232 birds since 1994.

Northern corroboree frog (endangered)

The northern corroboree frog lives at high altitudes and has suffered severe declines in numbers in recent times, with captive breeding now critical to its survival. It is uncertain how many remain in the wild, near Fiery Range and Brindabella Range, ACT. Healesville Sanctuary has being breeding them since 2010, with 20 breeding adults producing 119 fertile eggs this year.

Southern corroboree frog (critically endangered)

Disease and climate change are threatening the future of the alpine-living southern corroboree frog, with fewer than 250 estimated to remain in the wild. Healesville Sanctuary has 20 breeding adults and this year produced 44 fertile eggs for release into Kosciusko National Park, NSW.

Tasmanian devil (endangered)

There is fewer than 10,000 Tasmanian devils left in the wild, with it facing extinction within 15 years because of a fatal facial tumour disease. Healesville Sanctuary holds the largest mainland captive population, with 66 disease-free devils and 20 born this year.

Mountain pygmy possum (critically endangered)

There are fewer than 30 mountain pygmy possums left living at Mt Buller, as the tiny possum faces extinction because of habitat loss, predators and climate change. It lives in alpine regions, with about 2000 wild animals remaining in Victoria and NSW. The Healesville Sanctuary’s captive breeding program focuses on Mt Buller’s population, currently holding 120 captive possums and producing 38 young this year.

Helmeted honeyeaters (critically endangered)

Despite being Victoria’s state bird emblem bird, there are fewer than 100 living in the wild at Yellingbo. At one stage there were fewer than 50 wild birds remaining. However, Healesville Sanctuary’s breeding program helped to stop the species from going extinct, with 14 breeding pairs raising 17 chicks this year.

Spotted tree frog (critically endangered)

The spotted tree frog is already extinct in NSW, with numbers also struggling in Victoria where it is found in only 12 rocky streams. Its survival is threatened by trout and disease, with Zoos Victoria researching how to save the species. This year Healesville Sanctuary’s 26 breeding adults produced 524 eggs that developed into young frogs for release into the Taponga River in eastern Victoria.