Williams, 57, is Professor of Global Change Biology at James Cook University and a long-time expert on many of the unique animal species which inhabit the ancient rainforests of North Queensland. Along with the spectacular landscape, those animals together with the nearly 700 unique plant species growing in the forests are a fundamental reason why the 900,000 hectare area received much sought-after World Heritage listing in the late 1980s.
In March, worried about the impact of the November heat wave, Williams carried out a spot check on one of the area’s most iconic and vulnerable creatures, the lemuroid ringtail possum, which he’d been studying for nearly two decades. These creatures are endemic, meaning they live nowhere else except in these high wet tropics pockets. The results were another shock.
At sites where he used to reliably record some 20 individuals an hour, he was now finding only three or four. It was a similar story elsewhere on the mountain slopes and on the higher sections of the tableland. Williams alerted the Wet Tropics Management Authority (an agency jointly reporting to the federal and Queensland governments) which called an emergency board meeting a week later. Within days, in late April, the board had issued its most chilling warning yet about the impact of climate change on the iconic area.
“The Board … has now become aware that, following the hottest summer ever recorded, some of the key species for which the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was listed are at imminent risk of extinction,” it warned.
“Professor Williams’ recent monitoring has identified that the declines in possum and bird species … are now reaching alarming levels. If the trends continue, populations at sites that previously had the highest density of lemuroid ringtail possums could become locally extinct as early as 2022.”
‘The canary in the coal mine’
On a chilly Monday evening this week, the Herald and The Age accompanied Williams to a site at Mount Hypipamee National Park, 950 metres above sea level up behind Cairns, to track down some of the nocturnal creatures.
We tramped in darkness along a track lined with dense rainforest, swinging torches and spotlights up into the tracery of branches overhead, seeking the tell-tale reflection of possum eyes. In an hour or more of searching, Williams had picked out four lemuroids, two Herbert River ringtails and two Green ringtails (also highly vulnerable endemic species). At this site, the numbers were 50 per cent down on what he would expect to find. Elsewhere, he says, numbers are down closer to 70 per cent.
The ringtails, which have evolved to thrive in the cooler upland areas, cannot handle temperatures in excess of 29 or 30 degrees, so the species is drifting ever higher up the mountains, Williams explains. They are disappearing from an elevation of 800 metres which used to be the “sweet spot” for biodiversity. Now they are starting to decline even at 1000 metres. Once they reach the peaks there will be nowhere else for them to go.
Bird species unique to the region are being similarly affected. “It’s distressing,” he says. “This is what I have spent my life working on, and I’m seeing it disappear before my eyes.”
The Wet Tropics world heritage area runs for some 450 kilometres down the coast between Cooktown and Townsville and includes the oldest continuously surviving tropical rainforests on earth. They are, says Leslie Shirreffs, the chair of the Wet Tropics Management Authority, a “living museum”, containing plant ancestors of the great Gondwana forests that covered the continent and parts of Antarctica 50 to 100 million years ago, among them rare species that show how the earliest flowers evolved.
The Wet Tropics (which includes the Daintree in its northern reaches) abuts another globally famous world-heritage site, the Great Barrier Reef.
But while efforts to save the reef – ravaged in some sections by widespread coral bleaching – have drawn the bulk of the funding and the attention, the rainforest remains something of the poor cousin, Shirreffs says. “We had predicted that the loss [of the cool adapted mountain species] would happen on current trajectories by the end of the century. But we are seeing it now,” she says.
Williams says both the reef and the rainforest are being heavily impacted by climate change, but “my problem is that we don’t have such obvious signs that the rainforest is in trouble – we don’t have ‘canopy bleaching’.”
The Australian Conservation Foundation says that makes it harder to galvanise more action for wet tropics protection. “It looks like a beautiful place and it is a beautiful place, but that’s actually one of the problems. It hides pretty well the damage that’s being done to it,” explains ACF’s chief executive, Kelly O’Shanassy, who accompanied a small group of journalists to the world heritage site.
The Wet Tropics Authority receives $2.7 million annually from the federal government for its baseline operating costs, but that figure has not increased since 2004 (though funding for specific projects has waxed and waned).
Williams had an extensive monitoring program set up over several years where he was tracking climate change impacts at some 40 sites, taking localised temperature readings. But then, he says, “the money stopped … we left the data loggers out there until they died. Especially in the rainforest that sort of instrument only lasts a few years. We kept them running as long as we could.”
O’Shanassy says people sometimes ask her why they should worry about the threatened disappearance of these highly specialised possum species. “They are the canary in the coal mine, just as much as the reef,” she says. “They are showing us what our future holds …. If we don’t move from burning coal to renewables in the next 10 years, we can’t stop runaway climate change and we will see this vast damage everywhere, including things we humans rely on. We lose the beauty – but we might also lose our life support systems.”
Temperatures soar, with devastating effect
Down near the coast, Cairns also suffered record temperatures in November, with a devastating effect on another creature which is iconic for the region: the spectacled flying fox. Thousands were discovered dead or dying as temperatures soared to 42 degrees.
At the bat hospital which Jenny McLean runs at Tolga, on the Atherton tableland above Cairns, more than 400 orphaned juveniles were brought in for care by volunteers over the space of just a few days.
McLean, a small, wiry woman whose been caring for injured bats since 1990 and runs the place on the lean earnings from a modest visitor’s centre, knows as much about the flying foxes as the scientists who regularly visit her. Those bats she can save she nurses back to health in a large enclosure where bright strings of apples hang beneath the open mesh roof like bunting, and nectar bottles hang invitingly for her patients to sip from.
“We are giving them another chance at life,” she says, as she cradles a tiny microbat weighing no more than 8 grams.
Among the scientists who are regular visitors to McLean’s bat refuge is the CSIRO’s flying fox expert, Dr David Westcott.
With McLean’s help, researchers have worked out how to place transmitters on the bats to locate the more remote flying fox camps in the forest, and thus ascertain their numbers more accurately. Westcott says a recent analysis of his data shows that the population has declined dramatically – by an order of around 70 per cent – over the last 14 years.
“It looks like the initial declines were driven by cyclones and then the heat stress event [in November] has given them a good whack while they’re already down,” he says. “Our most recent estimate prior to that heat stress event was 80 to 90,000 animals. There is some debate about how many died but it’s a significant proportion, 20-plus per cent of the known population.”
It was, he says, the first report of mass die-offs among the creatures because of heat stress. “At 42 degrees they cease to be able to thermo-regulate. They can’t shed the heat.”
The impact of climate change is also being noticed by Aboriginal groups that have traditional ties to the wet tropics.
Among them are the Djabugay people, who have native title over parts of the Barron Gorge National Park, north-west of Cairns. Barry Hunter, project officer for the local Aboriginal corporation, says he’s noticed many changes since he was a boy scrambling up and down the spectacular Barron Gorge waterfall.
“Over the last 20 years, I have seen distinct change, particularly in the birds, some of which have a totemic meaning for family groups.”
Climate change is also disrupting his community’s traditional methods of fire management. “We have not had a dry season this year, which indicates changing weather patterns,” Hunter says. “We should be well and truly into our traditional burning season,” he adds, explaining that setting small mosaic fires helps minimise the risk of massive blazes in areas adjacent to the heritage-listed forests.
The ACF and the federal government remain at loggerheads over whether funding for environmental protection is anywhere near adequate. ACF’s O’Shanassy says since the Coalition came to office in 2013, the environment budget has been cut by nearly 40 per cent, to around $900 million a year.
A spokesman for Scott Morrison’s new Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, flatly rejects that claim, saying ACF ignores programs which are not directed through the department but are environmentally significant. He cites the $190 million National Landcare program, a $137.5 million “practical environment restoration package” and $250 million over the next five years to support management of federal environmental water holdings as examples. This week, a $1.9 million grant under the Landcare program was awarded to an NGO in the wet tropics area.
But the Wet Tropic Authority’s board said in April that investment was “not commensurate with the urgency for mitigating climate change impacts”.
One area where the two sides have reached agreement is over ridding the wet tropics and adjacent rich agricultural land of yellow crazy ants, an introduced species that wreaks devastation on local ecosystems and farmers alike.
This year’s budget set aside $9 million to keep eradication programs going, with the Wet Tropics Authority overseeing much of that spend. It’s painstaking work, as rangers and community volunteers fan out in grid patterns, laying down a paste to lure the ants (cat food mixed with apricot jam works a treat), then coming back to set poison baits at infestation hot spots.
Shirreffs says the success of the program is a model for what could be achieved in the bigger battle against climate change. “It has worked by bringing together industry, the community, science and government – they all have an interest in the survivability and integrity of the world heritage area, which is worth $5.2 billion a year to the local economy.”
O’Shanassy, speaking more bluntly, says ACF will try to work around Canberra and partner with business and state governments on climate change because “the Coalition government is not signalling that it’s going to be serious on climate action”.
“The government says we are going to reach our Paris [emissions reduction targets] in a canter? Every bit of evidence says we are not. There are flat-out lies being told which is very distressing because this is a fundamental issue that affects all Australians.”
In a week in which heat records have tumbled in Europe – a week when even mining giant BHP’s boss Andrew Mackenzie has declared climate change to be an “existential” threat – Williams says he wants to see Australia at the forefront of the issue globally.
“Fiddling around at the edges is not going to cut it. We have to tackle the root causes. What most people don’t understand is that this is not something that might happen in the future, it’s already happening. All over the word. I’m talking about thousands of studies that demonstrate [the damage] in every ecosystem, from the Artic to the Antarctic.”
Deborah Snow travelled to Cairns as a guest of the Australian Conservation Foundation.
Deborah Snow is a senior writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.