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Ollie Milman January 8, 2012

Endangered: Leadbeater's possum.Endangered: Leadbeater’s possum. Photo: Dan Harley

MELBOURNE’S zoos will become urban arks, breeding sanctuaries for 20 of the most at-risk species in the state, as scientists struggle to save them from extinction.

Flagging a strategic shift to become a ”zoo-based conservation organisation”, Zoos Victoria – which includes Melbourne Zoo, Healesville Sanctuary and Werribee Open Range Zoo – has released a ”priority” list of species it believes are in urgent need of help.

The list includes 11 species that are already the subject of the zoos’ conservation efforts, including the Tasmanian devil, mountain pygmy possum and orange-bellied parrot. Nine additional vulnerable species, including the Baw Baw frog, Leadbeater’s possum, the alpine she-oak skink and the Guthega skink, are set to be brought into captive breeding programs in the coming months.

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Endangered: the spotted tree frog.Endangered: the spotted tree frog. Photo: Trent Browning

”Australia has the worst species extinction record in the world,” said Jenny Gray, CEO of Zoos Victoria. ”Rather than rush off to Africa to help them save the gorilla, why can’t we save our own species? We are a rich country. It should be possible.”

The list of 20 was compiled following a risk assessment of vertebrate species’ prospects over the next 10 years. Criteria for deciding those most at risk included population size and threats such as habitat decimation and introduced predators, including foxes.

Ms Gray said a catalyst for the list was work done by Zoos Victoria staff on Christmas Island in 2009. Following a drawn-out bureaucratic process, the team went to the island to capture and breed the critically endangered pipistrelle bat.

The Tasmanian devil, also endangered, needs human help to survive.The Tasmanian devil, also endangered, needs human help to survive. Photo: Jacquie O’Brien

They were too late. The conservationists could find only one bat on the island and recorded the last sounds of its life.

”It made us think, ‘Is it our role to record extinctions?’,” Ms Gray said. ”I don’t think it is. There are species out there that aren’t as big and charismatic as a rhino, but they need someone in their corner fighting for them.

”We need to do better at listening to the alarm bell when these species are under threat, or there is a chance we will lose them.”

The zoos’ threatened species biologist, Dr Dan Harley, said it was sad that the Victorian public knew more about ”lions, tigers and bears than our own species”. Although many on the endangered list are small and nocturnal, they have ”unusual and charismatic lives and are far more aggressive than you’d ever think. Some of them make lions look like horses.”

Dr Harley said it was important to make the endangered species more relevant to people, especially city dwellers. ”These are animals that are in our backyard and we want Victorians to see how special they are,” he said.

”The Tasmanian tiger was a lost opportunity – the last one died in 1936, which is a relatively short time ago. It was a classic scenario of not acting until it was too late.

”The Leadbeater’s possum wasn’t seen for 50 years, we thought it was extinct and it was on our doorstep. The Baw Baw frog is only found on Mount Baw Baw, nowhere else. These species are just one bushfire away from extinction.”

Early action isn’t the only change in strategy – Zoos Victoria will focus on quality rather than quantity, ensuring that the genetic pool of species remains vibrant and encouraging animals to act as they would in the wild, prior to release.

”Conservation in the 1980s and ’90s was almost a numbers game,” he said.

”What we are doing is a distinct change from that. It’s about identifying which species it makes the most sense to work with and focusing on genetic make-up and animal behaviour that is suitable for release.”

Ms Gray said Zoos Victoria saw itself as ”having one role in the big picture, which also includes Parks Victoria, aquariums and so on” in the effort to save vulnerable species.

But with limited funds for conservation and an expanding human population, isn’t it inevitable some species will die out?

”We don’t say that about people, so why would we say that about animals?” Ms Gray said. ”If we say it’s OK for one species to die out, where do you stop? It’s a slippery slope. We will keep fighting for every species that is in danger.”