SYDNEY – The Australian northern bettong could soon disappear unless drastic measures are taken, the World Wide Fund for Nature warned on Wednesday.
“It’s not too late for the northern bettong, but our window of opportunity for action is closing fast,” Tim Cronin, WWF Australia’s senior manager for species conservation, said in a statement.
The northern bettong is a slow-moving hare-sized marsupial known as the rat kangaroo. It currently occupies just 145 square kilometers in two areas of Queensland’s Wet Tropics, a far cry from the 1,000-kilometer stretch they occupied at the beginning of the European colonization of Australia.
“But just one population is known to be stable,” said the statement on a WWF-led Northern Bettong Project report published after a five-year investigation.
It is estimated that the habitat of these marsupials has decreased by about 70 percent in the last three decades and that only an area called the Lamb Range, southwest of Cairns, seems to retain a relatively strong population.
“The good news is that the tropical bettong is stable in their core habitat,” added Dr. Sandra Abell, who managed the scientific project which suggested that the Lamb Range population could disappear in 10 years if no action is taken.
Abell warned that “actual numbers are likely to be at most 2,500, which is much lower than the 5,000-10,000 estimated in their original ‘endangered’ status listing on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List.”
According to the study, the northern bettong has a “crucial and irreplaceable role in the ecosystem.”
The absence of the northern bettong would result in a reduction of truffle diversity, and possible damage to the diversity of the trees and the ecosystem in general, said the report, to which James Cook University, and the Queensland and Australian governments also contributed.
Threats to the stability of the marsupial’s population abound. Feral cats were detected at 40% of 11 key areas surveyed in the Wet Tropics, and cattle and feral pigs at 80% of areas. Cats prey on bettongs, while pigs and cattle compete with them for food and alter the habitat.
The loss of indigenous fire control programs, which helped maintain the health of the forests, could also have an impact on the species.
“To make matters worse, climate change is likely to further alter their habitat, affect seasonal food availability, and exacerbate existing threats from fire and feral predators,” said WWF.
Cronin added: “We must protect our remaining bettongs by conserving and restoring woodlands, controlling pests, and using recommended fire management to maintain and enhance their habitat.”