Cassowaries in the Wet Tropics of Far North Queensland

By Ingrid Marker ‒ Cassowary Keystone Conservation Inc.           

A keystone species and major tourism icon of Far North Queensland, cassowaries live in the Wet Tropics ‒ a small area compared to their original habitat. This land was set aside to protect species from threats, whilst enabling them to access diverse habitats and forage on variety of seasonal rainforest fruits.

As Australia has no primates to disperse seeds across the landscape, this important role is achieved by cassowaries. This is vital to the diversity and health of the rainforest, creeks and water quality entering the reef catchment and therefore the health of the Great Barrier Reef. A prehistoric apex species, this "Queen of the Jungle" has no natural predators as an adult and can survive cyclones. And yet they are on the brink of extinction.

Key threatening processes include:

  • Loss of habitat ‒ significant community goodwill and in-kind philanthropic support has been invested to ensure healthy landscapes with community and NRM groups achieving good outcomes with buybacks and revegetation projects, however stronger land protection laws are needed urgently.
  • Car strikes ‒ Many community groups across the Wet Tropics are working to reduce speed limits and other identified hazards in known hot-spots.
  • Domestic dog attacks are a persistent and increasing threat, to cassowaries and in particular juveniles no longer in their father's lengthy parental care. Cassowaries are solitary, long-lived (approx. 50 years), slow-reproducing animals. Studies suggest cassowaries are breeding but that most birds die when leaving father's care, before recruitment to adult populations.
  • A monitoring program in Mission Beach between 1990-92 found sub-adult cassowaries to be the age most vulnerable to dog attack. Of the 24 reported dog attacks on cassowaries recorded in 2003, 82% were fatal.
  • My research clearly highlights the laws protecting cassowaries are ineffective. No data is currently being recorded, and as these attacks happen within the rainforest, the birds die out of sight, with the evidence decomposing on the forest floor.

Let me take you down a rabbit-hole of how the laws and policies are failing:

  • Local councils are responsible for enforcing the Animal Management Act (AMA), ensuring dogs are kept in a fenced property and under effective control at all times, micro-chipped and registered.
  • Many councils say they are under-resourced to do the management, and yet they don't require rural dog owners to pay registration. Many rural dog owners don't bother to comply with the AMA. Councils have no data on dog numbers within each Shire; it is estimated that only one-third of dogs are registered, so how can you manage a problem if you don't know how big the issue is? If a dog attacks, kills or causes an accident and the dog is not registered or micro-chipped, the owner can escape all responsibility and liability for their dog's actions.
  • This highlights the problem that rural dog owners generally live adjoining rainforests and protected areas, own large dogs, frequently own more than one dog and these dogs can often be taught to hunt and kill. When you look at a regional map you can see the Wet Tropics is surrounded by domestic predatory animals (dogs) or roads, so cassowaries are trapped.
  • Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) have insufficient resources to adequately enforce the existing laws to keep dogs out of protected areas and the offences generally occur after hours and on weekends.

Regional councils are aware of the issues posed by roaming dogs on cassowary conservation and the biosecurity threats to farmers' livelihoods from Panama Disease. They are now increasing enforcement of the AMA, working with QPWS and farmers to crack down on irresponsible dog owners and pig hunters who illegally enter protected areas or trespass on farms which by law is considered poaching.

We need to apply the precautionary principle of prevention. Cassowaries that are habituated to humans or pushed into marginal habitats are statistically more vulnerable to dog attack and road mortality as they move through rural and semi-urban landscapes looking for food and territories. I believe the many regional community and conservation groups are vital, undervalued assets in cassowary conservation. If recognised and funded as key stakeholders in research, monitoring and habitat rehabilitation, these groups could be the future of best practice for wildlife conservation.

Cassowary Keystone Conservation has enjoyed working with and being supported by Friends of the Earth Far North Queensland in its campaign.

Published in Chain Reaction #132, April 2018. National magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia.

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