The Victorian Earless Grassland Dragon (Tympanocryptis pinguicolla), which has not been seen since 1969, was found in the grasslands west of Melbourne. However, there is no need to be afraid of this dragon; These lizards are only 15 cm long when fully grown.
The dragon is Australia’s most endangered scale reptile. This is an exceptional second chance. The rediscovery of a species believed to be extinct raises hopes of finding more lost treasures like the Tassie tiger.
However, rediscovery only happens because a species has become so rare that even the experts who know best where to look can’t. To save it from extinction, three things must be done quickly:
Intensive Care – Create a maintenance breeding population, manage the remaining genetic diversity, and breed enough individuals to return to the wild
within the species’ range, protect habitats of the size, quality and quantity necessary to support self-sustaining populations
Restore and manage these habitats, reduce threats, reintroduce dragons, and monitor results to ensure the long-term viability of the species.
intensive care unit
This first step is to establish an air-conditioned, disease-free maintenance breeding facility managed by the ICU doctors and nurses. It is a tragedy that the only way to ensure its future is to harvest the last specimens of a species from the wild. After making this decision, it is important that they receive the best possible care.
Fortunately, there are experts in Melbourne who know how to build and operate such facilities, reintroduce species to the wild and oversee their recovery. In this way, Zoos Victoria and its staff have saved the extinctions of the mountain pygmy possum, lowland plumper possum, helmeted honeyeater, baw baw frog, southern corroboree frog and spotted tree frog over the past decade.
This work includes the establishment, maintenance and staffing of such a facility, as well as investigations into the location and transfer of individuals for captive breeding. Based on experience with endangered frogs and the additional cost of outdoor enclosures, the cost will be around A$2 million over the next five years.
secure living space
Merely preserving a species in zoos is not conservation. In order to restore a species, self-sustaining wild populations must become established. This is where complexity, uncertainty and economy really come into play.
The dragon has only been found in the endangered ecosystem called Basalt Plains Grassland. Agriculture and settlement have reduced this grassland to less than 3% of its pre-European extent. Most of what remains is on private land.
The dragon’s long-term fate depends on the management of the location and all nearby areas where dragons live. We also need extensive new areas of suitable grassland as sanctuaries where captive bred animals can be released.
Research has shown that we need at least six independent, self-sustaining populations for the dragon to have any chance of surviving for at least the next 50 years. Even with good management, some populations are occasionally lost to disease, predators, hot fires, or other chance events.
Individuals must be released into these areas once the areas recover and the species can feed again. In pre-European times, animals could naturally migrate back to such places. Today’s habitats are too fragmented for that.
Unfortunately, the grasslands of the basalt plains continue to go through legal and illegal clearing, use of fertilizers that favor exotic grasses, weed infestation, stone removal, intensive grazing, and the loss of regular, low-intensity “cool” fires used by traditional owners in the past, lost.
To make matters worse, over the last decade the Victorian Government has broken its promise to reserve large areas of the western lowlands as nature reserves.
Securing new protected areas will be costly given the competing demand for that land. However, the government has received compensation from developers when they (legally) destroy grassland to build houses. It’s time to use those funds to create the reserves the dragon and other endangered grassland species need to survive.
We estimate that securing six high-quality grassland plots, each at least 100 hectares, will cost at least $30 million.
The biggest cost to ensuring the survival of the dragon and other endangered species will be securing adequate grassland habitats.
Manage threats and restore habitats
These reserves must be carefully and actively managed. Unless cool fires are frequent and invasive weeds and animal pests are present, these areas will lose the plant species that make them special and beautiful. Weeds, cats, foxes, dogs and rabbits create unsuitable habitats for dragons.
Many of these grasslands are so degraded that extensive restoration work is required, starting almost from bare ground.
Weed control and firefighting to maintain six 100-acre reserves as suitable habitat for dragons will cost about $2.4 million a year. Of course, these reserves would be home to many more grassland animals and plants, including other endangered species such as the thick-tailed brownfish.
Development has destroyed most of the grassland habitat in the dragon’s former range.
We cannot exactly know the exact cost of purchasing, restoring, and managing grassland. For example, our estimates assume that the sites contain the most grassland plant species. Restoring areas of bare ground would more than double the cost of restoration and management for ten years.
Other uncertainties include land prices, the cost of weed, pest and fire control, and the possible need to help insect populations establish themselves as a sustainable food source for dragons.
We can afford to save the dragon
The entire program is expected to cost around $56 million over a 10-year period. More than half of the costs are attributable to the purchase of coveted real estate.
If that sounds like a lot of money, consider that Australians spend over $30 billion annually on animal care. The GST alone for that expense ($3 billion) would cover the annual cost of protecting most of our 1,900 or so endangered species (most don’t have the dragon’s expensive taste in real estate). As a nation, we can afford to save the dragon and most of his endangered friends, as required by law.
Brendan Wintle, Professor of Conservation Science, School of Ecosystem and Forest Science, The University of Melbourne and Sarah Bekessy, Professor of Sustainability and Urban Planning, Head of the Interdisciplinary Research Group on Conservation Science (ICON Science), RMIT University
This article has been republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.