Australia: Cassowaries still threatened after Yasi

Patrick Caruana AAP The Australian 24 Aug 12;

NORTH Queensland's iconic cassowary could be facing a worse problem than the devastation of a category five cyclone.

Cyclone Yasi proved far more fatal to cassowaries than it was to humans, as last year's terrible storm ravaged the rainforest home of the large, flightless birds.

The discovery of dead cassowaries prompted a strong and impressive response from the community - food stations and recovery centres were established, while animals hospitals nursed chicks back to health.

But cassowaries, which are listed as endangered, are also being killed by dogs and cars.

Nowhere is this more clear than at the beautiful Mission Beach, in the centre of the Cassowary Coast, where car strikes have killed a number of birds in recent months.

Local jewellery maker and environmental campaigner Liz Gallie says the developments in the region have changed the character of the area and its friendliness to cassowaries.

"I've watched with horror as land has been cleared around the area," she tells AAP.

"They've got 1700 blocks of land which are ready for development."

Mission Beach was directly in the path of Yasi and the town still has not recovered from the impacts of the storm.

Ms Gallie says she is concerned the cassowary will be just an afterthought in the eagerness to rebuild the town.

"People want to develop Mission Beach - it's a beautiful place," she says.

"The tourist operators are screaming out to build a marina, rather than focusing on ways of getting us back as a village and a community where we can feel comfortable."

Cassowary Coast mayor Bill Shannon says the council is determined to look after the species for which the area is named.

"It has a huge effect on the planning laws, especially in Mission Beach," he says.

"It's built into the planning scheme - there's a lot of work done on fences and spacing between land. Even the intensity of the development is affected."

Mr Shannon says there are efforts to warn drivers in known cassowary habitats.

"Unfortunately, most of the speeding drivers who hit cassowaries are locals," he says.

One of the main problems in understanding the seriousness of their plight is that the birds are exceptionally good at hiding from humans and tend to wander alone across vast areas.

CSIRO cassowary expert Dr David Westcott says conventional survey techniques have proved completely inadequate for counting the birds.

"The really tricky question for management is the number of cassowaries in the wild and working out if it is declining," he says.

"Two guys did a study in the late 1980s looking at the extent of cassowary activity and their best guess was between 1500 and 4000 birds - that's a very rough number with lots of qualifications.

"In other words we've got some pretty rough estimates, and they're very old and we haven't done a lot about it since."

Dr Westcott said his team was trying to develop novel ways of establishing a clearer picture on numbers.

"We have developed a method where we can identify individual birds from their dung - which is what we encounter most often when we do our surveys," he says.

"So when you have three, four or five piles of dung, it's not clear how many birds are responsible - this method allows us to turn that into better data about how many birds are in the area."

Dr Westcott says he has mixed views about the future of the cassowaries.

"They exist largely in the well-protected areas of the Daintree and the Wet Tropics World Heritage zones, so from that perspective I'm optimistic."

"However, what we don't know is what the populations are within those areas, and there are plenty of examples from around Australia and the world where there are protected animals declining and going extinct for reasons we don't understand.

"We could have a situation where cassowaries are going extinct, and we would have no idea, and we do have no idea."