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Media Release
Senator the Hon Robert Hill
Leader of the Government in the Senate
Minister for the Environment

Saving the Cassowary


6 June 1997
(59/97)

The Federal Government has unveiled a ground-breaking conservation strategy to protect one of Australia's most unique and beautiful birds - the Cassowary.

Federal Environment Minister Robert Hill says the new strategy will protect the rapidly declining population of Cassowaries in the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area.

The strategy will be backed by a Wet Tropics Cassowary Fund which will be kicked off with $190,000 from the Commonwealth and $10,000 from major energy company Chevron.

Senator Hill says the Cassowary Fund will help design and implement community conservation of this critical species.

"The Cassowary is a symbol not only of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area but of Tropical North Queensland.

"These large flightless birds play an essential role in maintaining the diversity of the rainforest plant species in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. However, the Cassowary population is rapidly declining with perhaps only 1,300 Cassowaries remaining in the Wet Tropics region."

"The Cassowary Fund will support work to identify the specific conservation needs of the region's cassowary populations and implement the necessary on-ground action to save the species."

Senator Hill says the implementation of the strategy will need to be a community effort.

"The Howard Government has started the ball rolling by providing $190,000. Industry is also playing a role through Chevron's $10,000 donation. Now we need the community to swing behind the strategy to ensure its success.

"'I would like to see the community generously donate their resources - including time, labour and money - to assist in the campaign to protect the Cassowary."

The Cassowary strategy has two overlapping phases:

  1. The employment of a Cassowary specialist to identify Cassowary populations which are most at risk, identify the threats to these birds and design and oversee implementation of the required conservation action.
  2. The implementation of specific conservation action including measures to control dogs and feral animals, plant wildlife corridors, calm traffic and provide for cassowary- friendly fencing.

The strategy will require a cooperative approach involving the Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA), local councils, local conservation groups and landholders.

Senator Hill called upon other organisations to join Chevron in contributing to conservation efforts for the Cassowary.

"Chevron's contribution is an outstanding demonstration of its commitment to the community and the environment of North Queensland. It will significantly assist the community in its efforts to save the Cassowary."

The Cassowary Fund will be administered by the Chair of the WTMA's Board of Directors, Mr Tor Hundloe. WTMA will be assisted by a Cassowary advisory group made up of representatives from key stakeholders.

The Commonwealth Government will monitor the project, particularly through the involvement of the member for Leichhardt, Mr Warren Entsch MP, and Senator Ian Macdonald.

Senator Macdonald and Warren Entsch have enthusiastically advocated the establishment of the Cassowary Fund and will play a key role in promoting community action.

Media contact: Matt Brown, 06 277 7640; 0419 693 515

(The Cassowary is related to the emu, the ostrich and the kiwi. A fully grown bird can reach 1.5-2 metres in height and can run up to 30 miles per hour. The feathers are a shiny black with red and blue around the neck. Cassowaries also have a prominent crown on top of the head. In the rainforest Cassowaries eat fruit that has fallen to the forest floor as well as insects, fungus, roots and small invertebrates. Cassowaries are shy, solitary birds that are rarely seen in the wild.)

Background: The Wet Tropics Cassowary Fund

The Wet Tropics Cassowary Fund will support a Cassowary strategy with two broad components:

1. The employment of a Cassowary specialist to assess cassowary numbers, particularly in known "hot spots", identify the most pressing threats to these birds and identify and implement the action that must be taken to alleviate these threats. The specialist should also monitor the effectiveness of the threat abatement process.

2. The implementation of a series of specific threat minimisation projects. Projects will comprise specific actions including planting wildlife corridors, controlling dogs and feral animals, calming traffic and erecting cassowary friendly fencing.

It is proposed that the Fund will be managed by the Chair of the Board of Directors of WTMA, Mr Tor Hundloe. WTMA will be assisted by a cassowary advisory group, made up of representatives from key stakeholders. The Commonwealth Government will have a direct role in monitoring the project at all stages.

The intention is to deliver a sharply focused, cost effective and high profile community- - based cassowary project based on the most up-to-date information and professional advice. Specific on-ground action will be taken to save the Wet Tropics Cassowary. The necessary action will be implemented through a co-operative process involving WTMA, the Commonwealth government, local councils, local cassowary conservation groups, corporate sponsors and landholders.

The project will act as an incentive to encourage others to contribute cash and to make in-kind contributions to specific aspects of the project. For example, it is hoped that local conservation groups will assist in raising additional funds and will contribute labour, materials and expertise in implementing on-ground cassowary conservation action.

The project is to be commenced urgently. The Cassowaries have just entered their breeding cycle. The optimum time to carry out the required surveys is when the chicks are with their father (June to October). Specific conservation action will be commenced by the end of the year -with projects which provide protection for chicks at risk well on the way to completion before the birds begin to roam.

Project Implementation

A Cassowary specialist will be employed to:

Using reports compiled by the Cassowary specialist, WTMA will negotiate with cassowary conservation groups, Councils and landholders to develop and implement threat abatement projects designed to protect individual Cassowaries.

In order to maximise both the short and long term outcomes and to add value to available funds, proposals would be assessed on the following criteria:

Examples of the kinds of action which will be taken include:

Background: About the Cassowary

Cassowaries are related to a group of flightless birds that include Australian emus, New Zealand kiwis, African ostriches and the extinct moas of New Zealand and elephant birds of Madagascar.

There are three species of Cassowary, Bennetts, Wattled and Southern which all occur in New Guinea with the Southern Cassowary also occurring in the tropical rainforests of northeastern Queensland Australia.

Compared to other birds, the body form of the Cassowary is primitive as characterised by long muscular legs with large feet and long claws, long skinny necks, prominent beaks and a large helmet on the head. The cassowary is unable to fly due to the large body size in comparison to their wings, even though their wing structure is very similar to other bird species. Their lack of flight may also be due to the fact that their wing muscles are weak and unable to support flight because the breast bone lacks a place for the attachment of wing muscles. To compensate for flightlessness and to defend themselves against potential predators, ratites have strong, powerful legs. They can run fast, reaching up to 30 miles per hour and have a very powerful kick.

Their breeding season extends from August to September where the male and female come together briefly. Females are larger than males, other than that the different sexes appear similar.

The female will lay a clutch of four to ten eggs in a depression in the ground covered with dry leaves and well concealed in the vegetation of the forest. She then leaves and the male tends to the eggs. He incubates the eggs for around 35 days, then takes care of the young chicks for about a year before they leave.

Cassowaries, after hatching are covered in fluffy, narrow, dark brown feathers that have a hair like appearance. As they mature their feathers are a more vibrant shiny black with greenish blue tints around the eyes. When fully grown they can reach up to 1.5 to 2m in height. They have a flap of loose skin hanging from the neck, called a wattle. They also have a prominent crown or helmet on the top of its head which is used to push a path through the dense forest.

In the rainforest these birds eat fruit that has fallen to the forest floor as well as insects, fungus, roots and small invertebrates. The Cassowary has been found to be important in the dispersal of rainforest fruit seeds. Cassowaries are shy, solitary birds that, despite their size, are rarely seen in the wild.

Commonwealth of Australia