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Zoo hunts missing dragons, vanishing birds

ON THE LOOKOUT: Kangaroo Flat ecologist Richard Goonan is helping hunt critically endangered creatures. Picture: DARREN HOWEZoos Victoria is calling on central Victorians to help bring back a ‘cryptic’ lizard and a mimicbird from the verge of extinction.
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The regent honeyeaterwas once a common sight in Bendigo and the grassland earless dragonwidespread across the plainsof central Victoria.

However the bird has not been seen in Bendigo for decades, whilethe lizard mightalready be lost toVictoria.

Both are among 20 creatures Zoos Victoriahas identified as‘priority native threatened species’.

Zoo hunts missing dragons, vanishing birds VANISHING HABITAT: Ecologist Richard Goonan [above] says the grey and white box woodland which once connected ironbark forests had been cleared for agriculture. Picture: DARREN HOWE

TweetFacebookBut Zoos Victoria Foundation conservation partnerships managerChris Banks said that, worse,was the fact few people would even know.

“When people think of endangered animals, theytend to think ofmore iconic species like lions, tigers, giraffes and elephants,”Mr Banks said.

“But,these little, unknown species often underpin whole ecosystems.

“Andwe don’t want any moreterrestrial vertebrate species going extinct on our watch.”

The Zoos’fighting extinctioncampaign has taken a number of steps to make sure that doesn’t happen, including establishing captive breeding programs and eveninstalling a cryopreservation facility to secure genetic material.

MISSING: Once a common visitor, the regent honeyeater [left] – which mimics other bird calls – has not been seen in Bendigo for decades. Picture: M COOPER

But Mr Banks said engaging community support was one of the most important ways of fighting extinction.

“Involving people in conservation is really critical, and we find, time and time again, that the citizensof Victoria want to help, but often don’t know what to do,” he said.

“In the greater Bendigo area, one of the most useful things people could do is report any sightings of the regent honeyeater, as you’re right on the southern edge of its current range.”

One person who has already heeded the call is Kangaroo Flat ecologist Richard Goonan.

A life-long nature lover, Mr Goonan can still recall the first and only time he saw a regent honeyeater in Bendigo, some two decades ago.

“It was feeding on a floweringironbark on the street, right in the heart of Bendigo,” Mr Goonan said.

“I was a kid then but I was already anaturalist –I’ve always been interestedin nature, inbirds and plants –so I knew it wassomething pretty special.”

That sighting was among the last of the bird in Bendigo.

Once found across the east coast of Australia, from Brisbane through to Adelaide, the regent honeyeater isnow confined to small pockets ofsouthern, inland NSW andnorth-eastern Victoria, MrBanks said.

“The main problem facing this species is loss of habitat, primarily clearing of forest for timber and also for residential developmentand conversion of land into agricultural areas, farming and cropping,” he said.

“Then there isalso a numberof impacts of changing climate, long periods of drought that affect both the capacity of the trees to grow and fruit, to produce the pollen the honeyeaters need.”

HAVE YOU SEEN THIS DRAGON?: Zoos Victoria is calling on central Victorians to report sightings of the grassland earless dragon. Picture: PETER ROBERTSON / WILDLIFE PROFILES

Habitat loss is also the primary factor behind the disappearance of thegrassland earless dragon –last seen in Victoria in 1969 and now confined to a few pockets of the ACT and NSW.

“The grasslands were not seen to haveany sort of value and were cleared for crops and agriculture, with any trees chopped down and used as railway sleepers or for timber houses,” Mr Banks said.

“There wassevere modification of the land by heavy grazing of sheep and the impacts offertilizers on insect, which the lizards eat.”

Zoos Victoria recently ransurveys to rediscover the earless dragon in the plains west of Melbourne using camera technology.

It found no trace of them. But Mr Banks remains hopeful.

“Although thelast confirmed,recorded sighting was decades ago, it is a really small lizard, approximately 15 centimetres long at maximum, including the tail,” he said.

“It’s a very cryptic little creature, and it would be easy to not see them.

“So just because we haven’t found them yet, that does not mean a 100 per cent guarantee that they are gone.

“Oursurveys didn’t turn up any record of them, so the next step is to essentially run some sort of community campaign, asking‘have you seen this little dragon?’”

Apart from anything else, he said, such acampaign could raise awareness of both theimportance ofnative grasslands.

“There’s some really good studies been undertaken around world which show what happens to an ecosystem when youlose these kind of insectivorous animals,” Mr Banks said.

“Numbers of insects explode, impacting on both trees and crops.”

He said the dragon would be found inlarge areas of native grassland which haven’t been heavily modified, and that they preferred areas with small patches of exposed rock.

A long-term member of the Bendigo Field Naturalists Club,Mr Goonan said the dragons may once have ventured down Bendigo Creek but would have been more at home on the grasslands north ofKamarooka and west ofLaanecoorie.

FLOW ON IMPACTS: Mr Goonan says habitat restoration would also help mitigate erosion.

And while the recovery of that species may be decades away, if at all, the Kangaroo Flat father of two holds out hope his children could see the regent honeyeater in the not-too-distant future.

“The efforts of Zoos Victoria are critical instaving off extinction,” he said.

“There’s certainlyhope that we could have things species like theregent honeyeater visiting Bendigo again, but the bigger picture is that we have got to create the habitat for those species to survive.

“We need to restore the landscape and build thestepping stones between habitats for them to move around.”

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