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Fairy of the Forest

Monday, 24 March, 2014

Words by Steph Bishop-Hall
Photography by Tirin (takver.com)

Staring into the darkened enclosure I can see the rough outlines of my reflection in the glass. Every time I move, I mistake the flutter for something stirring. The sign optimistically says ‘Leadbeater’s Possum’. However hopeful I am, I can’t help thinking, ‘ain’t no chance’.

The enclosure is about as large as a small bathroom, is full of scrub, and has almost no light­—mimicking night. The Leadbeater’s possum is as big as your hand and tends to move in cautious, rapid jolts. I have made it to Healesville Sanctuary on two trains and two buses. I’ve come in search of Victoria’s faunal emblem in an area surrounded by mountains and dominated by trees.

As swarms of tourists and frustrated children pass by, I notice a small branch quivering. There’s something there. I move to the edge of the enclosure and watch the branch for a good ten minutes. Eyes straining through the dark, I see it! The Leadbeater’s possum comes down the branch, moving in rapid hops before it plops onto a log on the ground. Then, fast as lightning, it races back up the branch and then straight back onto the log. It does this a few times, before settling on the scrubby floor.

Dan Harley, a threatened-species biologist at Healesville Sanctuary, tells me the possums are not yet used to the reverse light cycle in the nocturnal house and are not as active as they usually would be. “Researchers in the 1970s started calling them the fairy possum…because they’re these tiny elusive animals that are typically only glimpsed as fast-moving shadows,” Harley says. “They come out in the twilight and…then they’re gone.”

This forest fairy is so elusive it was thought to be extinct until it was re-discovered in 1961. “It’s endemic to Victoria so if we don’t save it no one else will,” Harley explains. “I look at the Leadbeater’s like it’s Victoria’s panda or tiger. We know what needs to be done to save it… the extinction of the species is entirely preventable.”

The Leadbeater’s Possum can be seen in three distinct habitats in Victoria. The majority of the population, 88 per cent, live east of Melbourne in the mountain ash forests on Lake Mountain. The 2009 Black Saturday bushfires decimated these areas, destroying 45 per cent of the best habitat for the possum. At Mt Bullfight, less than 50 possums survived and on Lake Mountain the population went from over 200 to just five. Of those survivors, only two remain. “It was more than 95 per cent mortality arising from the fire at Lake Mountain,” Harley explains.  “It provides a really clear demonstration of how a catastrophic fire event can totally eliminate a local population stronghold.”

Leadbeater’s live in family groups in tree hollows formed in mature trees. Mountain ash eucalypts start developing hollows after 150 years, and the hollows are generally only suitable for a family of Leadbeater’s after 190 years. Prior to European settlement, it is predicted that up to 60 per cent of all mountain ash forest was old-growth. Now, only one per cent of the ash forests are old-growth and these areas continue to be logged.

The lowland swamp forests at Yellingbo, southeast of Lake Mountain, are home to 0.1 per cent of the total population of Leadbeater’s and this group is genetically distinct. Only 40 possums remain at Yellingbo. Healesville Sanctuary’s captive breeding program is focused on the lowland population because this group is most likely to become extinct in the coming years. The first possums were brought into captivity in May 2012. Healesville currently has three breeding pairs and one individual possum.

So far, no breeding has occurred but Harley is hopeful one of the older females will breed in the next six months. “Once they start breeding in captivity they’re quite easy to breed. So it’s really about getting the right two animals together and making sure those animals are at the right age and are sexually mature,” he explains.

The two on display at Healesville Sanctuary are the only two Leadbeater’s on display anywhere in the world. I didn’t know this at the time, but standing in that dim blue light, among the weird din of recorded animal sounds and spectators, I was lucky enough to see one of the two Lake Mountain survivors from the Black Saturday fires.

Harley emphasises that public awareness and political pressure are critical to the Leadbeater’s survival. “It is really the community that should be voicing its concerns to politicians… political decisions are going to determine success or failure.”

People can also help the Leadbeater’s possum by being a conscientious consumer, purchasing recycled toilet paper and sustainably managed timber. But visiting Healesville Sanctuary is the most enjoyable way in which you can help.

Even though I don’t think it could see through the glass, the Leadbeater’s looked straight at me. We shared a moment. As I knelt down and watched this forest fairy, the crowds kept rolling by, pausing momentarily, reading the sign, waiting and watching for a few seconds, before moving on to see a kangaroo or something instantaneously apparent.

If you’re ever at Healesville Sanctuary, feeling your way along the spiralling hallway of the nocturnal house, pause for a few minutes and watch for a forest fairy amongst the scrub. Victoria’s tiny, turbo charged emblems are worth the wait.