Who’s Saving the Cassowary?
Meet the conservationists hell-bent on stopping Australia’s next extinction.
They are far north Queensland’s most incongruous neighbours. Tourists, sea changers and land developers – all chasing a slice of tropical paradise – and the world’s most at-risk ratite, the flamboyant, flightless and very much endangered southern cassowary.
Found only in tropical north Queensland, the cassowary is most frequently sighted in Mission Beach, 140km south of Cairns. Here, rainforest spills onto 14 kilometres of idyllic, tricoloured coastline and the highest density of cassowaries in the world is found. But that’s nothing to spruik about.
Sighting a cassowary (casuarius casuarius johnsoni) in Mission Beach might be easy, but it’s not because there are a lot of them left.
In fact, the town’s forests may harbour as few as 50 adult birds – nobody knows for sure – and refuge for these endangered creatures is dwindling fast.
As developers continue to carve up what’s left of available land squeezed between the Coral Sea and the soaring mountain divide to the west, the cassowary’s future looks ever more bleak.
Championing the town’s burgeoning growth is an expansionist local council keen on transforming Mission Beach into the adventure capital of Australia. Think mountain biking trails, sky diving viewing platforms, a controversial yacht marina and more.
The truth is, there is very little natural habitat left in Mission Beach for the cassowary to call home. In the wild, every cassowary likes a solid seven square kilometres of territory to call home. But that’s no longer possible and the cassowaries are now being forced out of the ever-shrinking Licuala palm forests and into suburbia.
In Mission Beach, cassowaries are leading their chicks down a risky path. On a daily search for food, mates and new territories, they wander through high-speed traffic and into backyards. Tread onto farms, encounter backyard dogs and hand-feeding humans too.
Into the Wild
I set out to meet the cassowary on its traditional turf in Djiru National Park where the last, large stronghold of Licuala Ramsayi fan palm forest flourishes.
The most spectacular of all palms, the Licuala’s two metre-wide fronds tower 15 metres overhead, blocking out the sun with their vivid green mosaic and littering the forest floor with fragrant fleshy fruit that cassowaries adore.
As I wander at dawn, epiphytes stud the high canopy. Giant strangler figs throttle their hosts and thorny tendrils of lawyer cane grip their way through the forest. I tread carefully, quiet in my early morning solitude, but the encounter I hope for never comes.
Later, I sit by the serene, freshwater pools along Lacey Creek. I follow bright blue Ulysses butterflies along a path strewn with wild nutmeg. Past pandanus palms and bush almond trees I wander towards the open sea. The views are surreal but it’s not until I leave the forest completely that the cassowary finds me.
Deep in suburbia, well out in the open, a curious cassowary wanders past. It’s inconceivably close and not the least bit startled by our small human gathering. Meanwhile, I’m utterly euphoric. But the vulnerability of the encounter leaves me breathless. What happens to this cassowary next?
Saving the Species
Award-winning conservationist and a fierce defender of the cassowary, Liz Gallie fears the cassowary is living on borrowed time. A male cassowary nicknamed Joov ranges her own patch of Mission Beach, leading his trio of chicks across a busy beachside intersection to cool off in a creek close to her home.
“My heart is in my mouth when I know he’s going to cross that road. It’s highly likely that Joov will end up as roadkill,”Liz Gallie
“My heart is in my mouth when I know he’s going to cross that road. It’s highly likely that Joov will end up as roadkill,” she laments. Liz has observed the birds for 40 years. But, she says, the carving up of the town’s dwindling forests has changed the way cassowaries roam and feed.
“They are not shy anymore,” she says. “They have learnt that people mean food and their search for it is taking them into dangerous new territories.” According to Liz, suburban noise is interrupting how they communicate, and the birds and their offspring routinely play chicken in traffic that zooms past at 80 kph.
Meet the optimist
Peter Rowles, President of the local, long-standing Community for Coastal and Cassowary Conservation (known as C4) agrees. When we chat, he’s delivering native forest fruits to Mission Beach’s cassowary hospital, to feed a juvenile cassowary that has just been hit by a car.
“Thankfully the driver slowed down before it hit the bird, so it’s still alive and looks set to be released in the next week,” Peter says. “Alarmingly though, a dog turned up on the road while we were at the scene of the road accident, within the first half-hour of a bird being hit,” he says.
More critical that the threat from dogs and roads, is habitat loss.
Peter says: “If we continue to lose habitat then little by little we will lose the birds. But it’s the connectivity for the cassowary that’s important, protecting secure corridors between good patches of forest.’
Can the cassowary survive?
Mission Beach is paradise found and everyone wants a piece of it. The problem is, there’s only so much land to go around, and not nearly enough is being set aside for cassowaries.
So what do you do? According to Peter, you round up the locals and get planting to revegetate wildlife corridors. You inspire enough fans and petition for enough government funding to buy back land, and that what C4 does best.
With a beachfront environment centre that acts as the town’s premier visitor centre, a thriving nursery and so much replanting work going on, the team at C4 are not giving up without a fight.
C4’s Peter Rowles is optimistic. “We have a lot of protected areas in Mission Beach. We do have a problem with development, but we believe that by expanding the cassowary’s habitat through land buy-backs and by increasing the connectivity of their forests, Mission Beach will continue to have cassowaries.”
“These birds will not go extinct on our watch.”
Make it Happen
Mission Beach is located 140km south of Cairns. Visit over the dry season (May to September) and don’t miss the Cassowary Festival (September).
Make your Stay Count
Stay at Sanctuary Retreat: a registered nature reserve with canopy cabins, yoga and meditation classes, and vegetarian and raw menus (sanctuaryretreat.com.au).
Explore with Reef Express who provide reef-friendly sunscreen and a plastic-free experience (missionbeachislandreefadventures.com.au).
Visit the C4 Environment Centre on Porter Promenade, Mission Beach.
Shop online and support C4’s buy-back and community revegetation projects (cassowarryconservaton.asn.au).
Find out more at environment.des.qld.gov.au.
Get involved by volunteering in C4’s environment centre, the nursery, cassowary hospital or on regular C4 replanting days.
Save the Cassowary
If you are lucky enough to spot a cassowary in the wild, keep your distance. Never approach cassowaries or their chicks (males will defend them), never feed them and do not let them approach you. Most importantly, slow down when driving through cassowary habitat.
Top 3 Facts
How big? 2m tall, weighing 65kg and reaching speeds of up to 50kph.
Where are they found? Only in Australia, in tropical rainforests from Ingham to Cape York.
How many? As few as 1500 cassowaries may be left in the wild.
Why does it matter? This rare ‘keystone species’, eats and disperses rainforest plant seeds, making them vital to the survival of tropical rainforests.