Where the Greater glider once ruled the trees, evidence of a local extinction is unfolding in the NSW forest of Shallow Crossing — as ACF's Lead Environmental Investigator Annica Schoo recently discovered.
As someone who has worked to protect nature my entire professional life, I was shattered when the government released its list of species requiring urgent intervention after the 2019–2020 bushfires.
It was like reading the future obituaries of my favourite, weirdest and most unique friends: the Southern corroboree frog who will croak back if you call out 'hey frog!', the Southeastern glossy black cockatoo (graceful big shadows in the sky)...
And the Greater glider — big fluffy freaks of nature, who are mostly tail and ears with a warm body attached.
As 2020 developed, the situation became more dire.
The New South Wales Environmental Protection Authority (NSW EPA) released an independent report estimating it will take up to 120 years for our forests to recover.
That means, in some cases, generations upon generations of humans have to put nature first for our beloved native animals to survive.
You might be wondering: 'Aren’t these forests home to nationally important threatened species like my friends above?'
You might also wonder: 'Don’t our national environmental laws protect these species?'
“Our national environment laws do not protect these species.”
When it comes to most logging operations in the country, national environment laws don’t normally apply — due to a massive loophole that was put in place more than two decades ago.
Regional Forestry Agreements pretty much exempt native forest logging from our national environment laws and the details are left to the state government.
This is the approach the Morrison Government is hoping to take with the rest of our national environmental laws if proposed reforms pass in parliament.
Community groups have discovered that, since the bushfires, the NSW Forestry Corporation has been felling ancient hollow-bearing trees in unburnt areas — the sorts of trees that are supposed to be protected and the sorts of trees that are critical homes for Greater gliders.
So in March this year I trekked out to Shallow Crossing (on Yuin Country near Batemans Bay) with locals, an ecologist, a wildlife photographer and thermal drone experts to look at four areas proposed for logging in the near future.
Based on a desktop assessment, there were Greater glider records and patches of forest here and there that hadn’t been burned to smithereens.
I was hopeful.
As we met onsite and worked out a plan of attack, I was heartened by the sound of gang gang cockatoos overhead.
However, for much of the day after that I neither saw or heard much at all.
Finally, we heard birdsong walking down an overgrown trail that wound underneath towering gums.
Here, the forest was in good shape: plenty of ancient hollow-bearing trees, a lush understory of ferns and a gaggle of woodland birds singing their little lungs out.
“For much of the day I neither saw or heard much at all.”
Then in the dappled sunlight at my feet, I saw it: a black fluffy tail.
Upon closer inspection, the black tail was attached to a decomposing body, with wet grey and white fur, face-down on the ground.
With some manoeuvring using a stick, we pulled its face up. It still had one big ear and half its whiskers, just enough to recognise the face of a Greater glider.
It was bittersweet. This finding meant we could officially record a threatened species at the site, even though it was dead.
But the excitement around the luck of the find wore off the more we thought about it.
How was it possible that nothing — not a single quoll, or crow, or fox — had picked at this body?
Was the dead Greater glider a sign of life at Shallow Crossing or the exact opposite?
We would have a better idea after a couple of nights spotlighting.
I've been spotlighting as part of my work for many years in forests across the country. I have never seen anything like what I saw at Shallow Crossing.
To put it into perspective, the aim of the game when spotlighting is to catch the eye of something with your torch.
When you’re looking at something and it’s looking at you, you see two twinkling bright eyes. Sometimes you can tell who is looking at you based on the colour of the twinkling lights.
The first time I went spotlighting I cast my torch across the ground on a property in North Queensland and saw what looked like millions of stars.
I foolishly suggested to my ecologist friend that I must be seeing the dew on the grass, to which he replied: 'No, that’s the spiders looking at you'.
"I have never seen anything like what I saw at Shallow Crossing."
In contrast, at Shallow Crossing we spent hours on foot over multiple nights searching for any sign of life and only caught the eyes of a couple of insects, even in relatively unburnt sections of forest.
Not a single possum, roo, wallaby or warm-blooded animal looking back. There was a brief moment of excitement when we caught a tiny orange glint but, crestfallen, we realised it was the light of a distant house.
“I was staring into the abyss, witnessing extinction.”
It’s the first time I’ve been in the bush, anywhere, and felt genuinely alone (aside from the humans in my company).
On the drive back on the last night spotlighting, it sank in that the unceremonious carcass of a Greater glider we had found on our first day is possibly the last of its kind in more than 1,000 football fields of forest.
It died alone, fell to the ground, and no other animal was even there to eat it. It felt like I was staring into the abyss, witnessing extinction.
In a strange plot twist, the next week our thermal drone surveys — while finding very few living creatures at all — managed to identify a hot blob in a tall tree that could be a Greater glider.
We have 80% confidence, which isn’t enough.
Unfortunately, rain prevented us from returning to the site to confirm, but we hold hope that our spotlighting colleagues will be able to find our blobby friend in the next few weeks.
If they do, it is extremely likely that he or she is the only Greater glider in a very large patch of bush and the only hope of the species surviving what appears to be a near-local extinction.
When I think about extinction I often think of John Woinarski’s description of the last Christmas Island Pipistrelle — a small bat on Christmas Island that, in 2017, won the unfortunate official title of the first species extinction in Australia since the introduction of our current national environmental laws (the EPBC Act) in 1999.
Scientists quite literally heard the last little bat become extinct in 2009:
“It flies to and fro along its regular foraging beat for several hours.
The detector blips frequently: then less; and then no more.
The bat is not recorded again that night, and not at all the next night.
The bat is never recorded again … it is the silent unobtrusive death of the last individual. It is extinction.”
About seven years before that, conservation biologists could plainly see — and were blunt with multiple Australian environment ministers — that the Christmas Island Pipistrelle was heading in this direction.
As though in slow-motion, a series of government decisions failed the bat, the numbers dwindled and, finally, one bat was left. The thought of the hollow loneliness of that bat, the last of its species, issuing unanswered calls into the night, is gut-wrenching for me.
“The thought of the last of its species, issuing unanswered calls into the night, is gut-wrenching.”
Sending a species into extinction is extinguishing all possibility of an entire life form.
And, like most systemic moral transgressions in human history, it is contingent on the complicity of many people and the compounding effects of many seemingly banal decisions.
We have national environmental laws that, in 2019, allowed our (then) Environment Minister to approve a project knowing it could lead to the extinction of multiple species (Read about it here).
We have national environmental laws that completely exempts forestry, like what is planned at Shallow Crossing, despite the national importance of creatures like the Greater glider.
We have a state-owned Forestry Corporation running native forestry operations at a loss to the taxpayer, that has unilaterally decided the forest is ready for pillaging.
Our expert advice after surveying the forest was that logging needs to stop for threatened species to recover after the devastating fires of 2019–2020.
We have provided this to the NSW EPA and the NSW Forestry Corporation.
A recent, once-in-a-decade, independent review of the EPBC Act by Professor Graeme Samuel recommended immediate reforms to allow for Commonwealth oversight of forestry operations. This recommendation was recently described as a 'ridiculous idea' by Senator Bridget McKenzie.
Australia is a world leader in mammal extinctions. Since the EPBC Act was introduced in 1999, we have seen 16 new species listed as extinct.
In that time, over 7.7 million hectares of habitat has been wiped out and more than 90% of it happened without any national oversight.
This is what extinction looks like. Who will stand up and be counted? Who will have been complicit if, in 20 years, there are no Greater gliders looking back at us?
We can turn this around. Professor Samuel’s review recommended a complete overhaul of our national environment laws, underpinned by strong national environmental standards, to protect our animals, plants and ecosystems.
Add your voice to the petition to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, asking them to support ambitious global goals for nature to halt and reverse biodiversity loss and achieve a Nature Positive world by 2030.
Invite your friends to raise their voice to nature too.
Australia must work with other nations to deliver ambitious global goals for nature to halt and reverse biodiversity destruction and set us on a path to a nature-positive world.
Shallow Crossing is on Yuin land. Words by Annica Schoo. Photos: Stuart Cohen/Bottlebrush Media (unless captioned otheriwse)
Shallow Crossing, Mogood NSW, Australia