The Critically Endangered Species File: The Woylie
By Sean Crawley
Each edition of Shift presents one species of life that is classified as critically endangered, homo sapiens excluded. By definition, whether it be by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or your nation state’s environmental governance structure such as the Department of the Environment in Australia, critically endangered essentially means that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.
Species: Bettongia penicillata
Common Names: Woylie, Brush-tailed Bettong, Brush-tailed Rat Kangaroo
Primarily, predation by introduced species especially the red fox and feral cats. Habitat destruction has also played a role in this species’ decline.
Once widely distributed across over 60 percent of the Australian continent, the Woylie now only survives in small isolated pockets where specific conservation efforts are in place.
A small mammal that would unlikely ever be able to engender the level of human attention as a whale or a panda bear, but like any life form has a place in the web of life. The woylie may never be a significant food source for humans nor be domesticated to be a cute pet, but its role in the Australian ecosystem would once have been significant, as evidenced by its once large distribution and abundance. Scientists have suggested that the woylie’s habit of regular digging about in the ground for food was integral to the soil condition in its habitat. What other contribution the Woylie has made to the unique Australian ecosystem, and the impact of its demise, may never be known.
Australia has a long history of human-induced species extinction. The arrival of the first people around 60,000 years ago, is widely credited as the cause of the extinction of the continent’s megafauna (see The Future Eaters, by Tim Flannery). This phenomenon of the demise of megafauna as homo sapiens spread, out of Africa and across the planet’s continents, was not unique to Australia. Loss of megafauna occurred in Europe, Asia and the Americas as humans entered new lands. The theory is that that the animals on these continents evolved without the presence of a bipedal, weapon wielding, social hunter. The megafauna were easy pickings, the lowest hanging fruit on the tree, for the newly arrived and hungry humans. The relatively recent accounts of hungry sailors simply walking up to Dodo birds and knocking them on the head for an easy kill, and the television images many us have seen of large Antarctic species such as lion seals and emperor penguins being totally relaxed as humans wander amongst their midst, support the theory that megafauna are inevitably doomed when hungry humans arrive in their domain. The exception to this of course is Africa, being a different case altogether, as humans evolved over millions of years on this continent in the presence of megafauna who were consequently able to evolve adaptations to coexist with the slowly evolving hominid.
The next wave of extinctions in Australia occurred after the arrival of Europeans in the 1700s. According to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy:
Australia has the worst mammal extinction record in the world – 27 mammals have become extinct in the last 200 years. No other country or continent has such a tragic record of mammal extinctions.
In addition, of our surviving biodiversity, more than 1,500 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and plants are listed as threatened with extinction under federal legislation. The Federal Government has also identified 3,000 ecosystems facing extinction (Source: Terrestrial Biodiversity Amendment).
What can be done?
Our understanding of the relationship between biodiversity and overall wellbeing for all life on this planet is sufficiently indisputable that any efforts to save a species should be supported and applauded. The Woylie is a species as worthy as any other for saving. However, ultimately any species that is threatened by the increasing scope and depth of human activity is doomed if we do not change our ways. The current universal paradigm of economic growth will eventually negate all efforts to save threatened and endangered species. So individually, as global citizens, the only long-term viable option we have to save the biodiversity of Earth is to not accept or participate in the current mode of human existence that manifests from the growth paradigm. Our presence on this planet must be benign, and not malign as it is at present. The shift required begins in our minds and must be followed by our actions. If the imminent loss of the Woylie moves you at all, at the very least, you can consider how each and every one of us must power down to give any endangered species a chance of future existence.