Australia’s native animals are among our greatest national treasures. From the koala and kangaroo to the platypus and echidna, we’re lucky enough to have some of the rarest and cutest creatures in the world calling Down Under home. But hundreds of our most iconic critters are now at risk. According to the latest International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list, 283 species are now listed as endangered, while a further 149 are listed as critically endangered.  “Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate on earth,” says Dean Reid, an Operations Manager of Aussie Ark, a NSW-based organisation specialising in saving native animals from extinction.  “It would be a terrible injustice not to have these amazing animals for our future generations. Plus, they are only found in Australia,” says Mr Reid. The red list spans all creatures great and small and includes familiar animals like possums, wombats, cockatoos, sharks, turtles, sea lions, whales and quolls, and creepy crawlies like the Lord Howe Stick Insect and the Black Dart Grass Butterfly.  

Established in 2011 to Tasmanian devil from extinction, Aussie Ark has expanded over the years to protect other native species under threat like bandicoots, frogs, wallabies, quolls, bettongs, koalas and broad-toothed rats through a series of ambitious projects such as planting 100,000 trees in the Mongo area, creating secure sanctuaries for native animals to be housed and securely released back into the wild, and even launching a turtle ark breeding facility.  Aside from the most familiar feathered, furry and finned creatures on the IUCN list are animals many Australians may not be familiar with, but that wildlife experts like Mr Reid says we should be.  “Potoroos are a marsupial that looks like a cross between a rat and a kangaroo. They’re one of the most ancient macropodiforme species and have lived unchanged for thousands of years,” he says.

In addition to being incredibly cute, potoroos also play a vital role in Australia’s bush ecosystem. Weighing just 1.5 kilograms, these herbivores feed off fungi and other bush floor foods, which helps break down fuel loads and reduce the severity of bushfires in the long-run.  Despite the images its name conjures up, Mr Reid says the broad-toothed rat is seriously endearing and “looks like a fluffy chipmunk”.  Found only in Tasmania, NSW and Victoria, broad-toothed rats could be found in abundance 50 years ago, but are now near impossible to spot due to steadily declining numbers. “You’ll know if there’s one around because their poo is fluro green,” he says with a laugh.  Among the most common reasons for Australia’s growing endangered and critically endangered species are climate change and severe weather events like bushfires, energy production and mining expansion, growing urban sprawl encroaching on native habitats.  Even koalas, our most recognisable native animal, are seriously struggling after losing 80 per cent of their habitat. Image supplied.Even koalas, our most recognisable native animal, are seriously struggling after losing 80 per cent of their habitat through bushfires, deforestation, and human interference.

Other issues include things like pollution, agriculture and aquaculture, and most commonly, introduced species like foxes, cats, cane toads and rabbits.  “Unfortunately, a lot of our native animals haven’t evolved to be able to survive attacks from animals like foxes and cats, who can outsmart them in their own territory,” says Mr Reid.  One such animal is the brush-tailed wallaby, a super speedy nocturnal macropod that lives among rocks and cliff edges and eats grass, shrubs, fruit and bark. Like many other native animals, brush-tailed wallabies were once found throughout much of Australia, but are now at risk of becoming extinct due to habitat destruction, feral animals, and more recently, the 2019-20 bushfires, that destroyed almost all of their population.  “Every animal plays an important part in its environment,” he says. “Losing even one has a knock on effect, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid.”  The good news is there’s a lot that can – and is already being – done to turn things around. 

Mr Reid recommends simple changes like perfecting your recycling and avoiding using single-use plastics, creating a frog pond or setting up a possum nesting box in your backyard to attract local wildlife back to the area, keeping pet cats inside the house and planting more native trees in your local area.  “There’s definitely a lot that people can do,” he says. “And it always feels good to get out in the community and help out and see that change.” 

The incredible work to save Australia’s koalas