The platypus in peril

When early colonisers sent a platypus back to the Royal College of London, they thought it was a hoax. 

“It naturally excites the idea of some deceptive preparation by artificial means,” English zoologist George Shaw wrote in 1799. Who can blame him? An amphibious egg laying mammal with venomous spurs certainly sounds like something from the imagination of a child, but today they’re one of the most unique creatures on Earth.

A wild platypus dubbed ‘Grumpy turtle.’ Photo: ACF.

“They thought someone had sewn a duck’s bill onto a beaver’s body, but of course it’s not a hoax. It’s a real creature,” says Nature Campaigner at the Australian Conservation Foundation Jess Abrahams, who’s just stepped out of a meeting to chat.

It’s a busy day for Mr Abrahams when he picks up the phone. Meetings in the morning and a flight to Canberra in the afternoon is another day in the office at the ACF.

It’s the last day of the Platy-project when we speak, something he’s has been anxiously waiting to see the results of. The citizen-driven campaign called on people to report any platypus sightings to ACF’s interactive map, which is being used to give scientists a realistic picture of where platypus populations are around the country. 

ACF nature campaigner Jess Abrahams. Photo: Jess Abrahams.

“Nearly 5000 people registered for the project, which is amazing. We’ve had nearly 800 platypus sighted from northern Queensland to southern Tasmania,” Mr Abrahams says.

“We’ve been able to prove they’re in a lot of places that they weren’t, but also sadly show they no longer seem to be in places that they were.”

Beneath the backdrop of luscious green forests and rolling hills, you’d think Tasmania is a natural haven to animals, but this is a common misconception according to the nature campaigner. 

“We’re in the midst of an extinction crisis and yet very few people realise that,” Mr Abrahams says.

“Many of us think we have lots of bush and we do so much better than other countries but really Australia has one of the highest extinction rates of any developed country in the world.”

“I would hate us to lose what makes Australia so special, but that’s what we’re at risk of doing.”

Jess Abrahams

Mr Abrahams got involved with ACF after working as a ranger in Tasmania and completing a masters degree in environmental studies, but his fondness for platypus developed early.

“On a hot summer’s day in Hobart I would head up for a swim in the rivulet in a bit of urban bushland. There was a spot I used to go to roll up my pants, soak my feet in the water or have a swim and there was a platypus I’d regularly see in that waterhole. It was amazingly unafraid of me or anyone else I brought along to sit quietly and watch,” he says.

Snapshot of platypus recordings from the Platy-project during September. Photo: ACF.

“I was amazed by this creature. I’d see it in the bush as well as different walking trails between the different levels of the rivulet. Once I was on the track and it came waddling along towards me.”

“I just found this fondness for this unique creature that’s such an… anomaly really. It’s such a strange combination of duck bill and beaver tail. It lays eggs but it feeds milk to its young. It’s part of Australian mythology.”

But where humans have thrived, animals have suffered. The cost of our progress comes at the expense of the animals who evolved over millions of years and made this place their home and habitat.  

The legislation around land clearing in Tasmania is murky. Photo: Duncan Bailey.

Tasmania has little information on land clearing, one of the biggest threats to platypus habitats. Mr Abrahams says the process for defining land clearing is murky.

“There’s no single source that can give you an accurate measure of how much habitat or land has been cleared in Tasmania because different authorities are capturing different pieces of information,” he says.

According to national accounts, land clearing data is aimed at recording associated greenhouse gas emissions.

In fact, Australia is like to be leaking more greenhouse gases than previously thought according to an analysis last year from the University of Queensland.

Mr Abrahams says decision making is hard when they don’t have the information to base good decisions on.

“Sometimes no one is even counting how much habitat is being lost, so essentially there’s this big unknown about what the rate of land clearing is but we do know the biggest driver is agriculture,” he says.

Agriculture is the biggest driver of land clearing across the state. Photo: Duncan Bailey.

To get an understanding of how land clearing plays out in the legal system, I reached out to chief executive officer of Tasmanian Conservation Trust Peter McGlone.  

“If you want to clear in Tasmania for agricultural purposes, which might include removing native forests, you go through the Forest Practices Authority,” Mr McGlone says.

“There’s been an incredible uptick of illegal activity in the last couple of years, and last year was certainly the worst that I can recall of illegal land being cleared.”

Last year, Mr McGlone came across a court case related to illegal clearing on King Island just off the north coast of Tasmania. 

He said he expected it to progress, but never heard anything about it.

“The thing that made it quite controversial was that not only was it illegal, but I understand the landholder moved into the wetlands, which is protected nationally and recognised internationally as an important wetland,” he says.

“There’s just this big unknown as to what happened in this King Island case, but there’s all sorts of reasons they can drag on. We successfully concluded a case in May that took seven years.”

The Minister for Climate Change Chris Bowen says land clearing is and will continue to be a state responsibility.

 “Obviously, it’s an area where states are trying to make progress, but it will continue to be a state responsibility,” Mr Bowen says.

Extinct species over time since early colonisation. The red line shows the number of species lost since white settlement. Graph: Biological Conservation.

It’s no secret that mistakes come back to haunt us, especially in the face of climate change, but lethal refrigerators did not come to mind until I spoke with Landcare Tasmania chief executive officer Peter Stronach.

It’s ironic to think refrigerators, whose sole purpose is to keep things cool, were burning the hole in the ozone layer wide open. Chlorofluorocarbons (or CFCs) were used in old equipment such as building insulation foam, refrigerators and cooling systems that were manufactured before scientists realised how destructive they were in the late 1980s.

In 2016, the first signs of healing in the Antarctic ozone layer were discovered, but high emissions of CFC were still being detected. It’s believed that old banks of deteriorating fridges are still leaking the harmful chemical into the air.

Landcare Tasmania Chief Executive Officer Peter Stronach. Photo: supplied.

It’s mistakes like these from our past that Mr Stronach says are causing what’s known as an extinction-lag period. 

“That’s a nice, complex topic. You really know how to scratch my brain at this time of the day,” he says at five in the afternoon. Even after a hellish day in meetings, he’s happy to pick up the phone and dive straight into the topic. 

“We haven’t really seen what’s happened to the bush yet so now we’re seeing what we’ve done in the past come into fruition.”

“We’re seeing the impacts of those fridges from 30 years ago, and it’s the same with species where we’ve cleared land, which may be growing back but lost a lot of structure in the vegetation.”

Mr Stronach has been working in landscape restoration for more than 20 years.

He says Landcare Tasmania is all about mobilising the community and helping them do the best they can to an ecological standard.

“You can’t have a large-scale impact without bringing in the community. We have to bring everybody with us, not just those that are committed and engaged but everyone in the community needs to be coming on that journey,” he says.

Jess Abrahams isn’t the only one with a passion for platypus. 

Almost an hour north of Launceston is an unassuming warehouse on the shore of Beauty Point. You wouldn’t think much of it if it weren’t for the giant letters spelling out ‘Platypus House’ on the side. 

“They look… well they look quite illogical, don’t they?” says Managing Director of Platypus House Peter Gibson.

Since opening in 2003, Platypus House has been a sanctuary for monotremes, or egg-laying mammals. The house is also home to echidnas, something Mr Gibson is proud of.

Four big interconnected tanks are the homes of Jupiter (aptly named for his size), Poppy, Dawn and Pumpkin. The monotremes are snoozing when we arrive, but luckily Dawn decides to go for a morning swim. 

“Platypus House is about raising public awareness on the monotremes. They’re normally very timid and shy animals, and really it’s a privilege to see one in the wild,” Mr Gibson says.

Jupiter in his habitat at Platypus House. Photo: Duncan Bailey.

“The problem with that is because they’re out of sight and out of mind, people forget about their importance of them. They really are unique animals,” he says.

Platypus make their homes in muddy riverbeds, and hunt on larvae and water insects.

Mr Gibson said along with climate change, introduced pests are a problem to their population. 

“Foxes, cats and dogs prey on them. Platypus are also notoriously sooky, so if they get injured or sick they’re very hard to keep alive.”

They can travel kilometres a day in a river system or on land, making it “pretty damn hard” to monitor, according to Mr Gibson.

“We really must manage our water systems, waterways and land correctly. If we keep polluting, dumping and causing problems for our wildlife we won’t have them. It’s as simple as that,” he says.

“It really is about educating everyone isn’t it? If you don’t stop and think about it then these issues are going to keep raising up and then it’s too late, they’re gone.”

One of the platypus found from the Platy-project. Photo: Amy Northwood, ACF.

How do you tackle such a multifaceted issue? How do you remain hopeful when staring down a beast like climate change and ensure unique creatures like the platypus will be here for future generations?

Mr Stronach says the answer lies in the community.

“Despite everything, I do feel hopeful,” says Mr Stronach.

“Throughout my career I’ve seen a real change in all levels of government. There’s still a lot of positives out there, and there’s a lot more people taking note of what the issues are and wanting to be involved in positive change. I’ve always supported the community from the ground up ever since I started in my career. My thing is to turn best intentions into best practice.”

On a federal level, Mr Bowen says the hope he can give is that we have two things: agency and urgency.

“If you look at all the reports, it’s not too late. The world has already warmed 1.1 degrees but it’s not too late to hold the world as close as possible to 1.5. But we do have also have urgency, it means we need to act quickly. And that’s why I enjoy engaging with young people in particular about the urgency of the task we have in front of us,” he says.

“I want them to continue to lead, I want them to continue to be activists, I want to continue to be innovative, but in a national framework.

“You give people the right tools and they can be really effective. If you’re going to create change over a whole landscape, you have to mobilise everybody.

“If you’re going to have any impact, you have to bring everybody with you.”

Chris Bowen

Mr Abrahams says people love platypus for a reason. He says they’re special creatures.

“They feature on the 20 cent coin and they’re part of our mythology. It’s hard not to love a platypus.”