The rediscovery of the Leadbeater’s Possum

The man who rediscovered the Leadbeater’s Possum in 1961 after it was declared extinct for more than 50 years was honoured in ceremony yesterday at the Melbourne Museum exactly 50 years after its rediscovery.

Eric Wilkinson was a 22-year-old assistant to the curator of fossils at the Melbourne Museum at the time of his remarkable discovery on 3 April 1961. His first field trip coincided with a ‘first date’ with his now wife (it must have worked – they’re still together) and as far as rediscoveries go, is still considered one of the best in history.

Mr Wilkinson claims he was ‘simply in the right place at the right time’ but yesterday those honouring him dismissed his modest claims, congratulating him for his remarkable contribution to the species.

Mr Wilkinson said at the time of his discovery ‘the hairs on the back of my neck stood up’. Now when he thinks about it, he says, ‘the hairs on the back of my neck still stand up because it was such a powerful moment.’

Powerful indeed, particularly when leading scientists at the time had been intensely searching for the species without success. Coming back with photographic evidence was needed to convince the authorities that this indeed was a sighting that would rewrite the history books.

Melbourne Museum hosted the event in conjunction with Parks Victoria and the Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum, an organisation established seven years ago to help Leadbeater’s survive in the wild by encouraging conservation efforts, research programs and effective conservation strategies and policies.

The Leadbeater’s Possum is Victoria’s faunal emblem and is surprisingly and alarmingly little known. Alarmingly, because 50 years on from its rediscovery, this nocturnal marsupial mammal is in danger of again being listed as extinct, with estimates that less than one thousand are all that remain in the wild.

What’s worse is that the Leadbeater’s does not exist in captivity either, with the last captive Leadbeater’s Possum located at Healesville Sanctuary dying in 2006.
President of the Friends of the Leadbeater’s Possum Sera Blair said at yesterday’s event, that while it was wonderful to formally acknowledge Mr Wilkinson’s remarkable discovery, it was also important to ‘look to the next 50 years and the survival of the species through future generations.’

One representative of that generation, 14-year-old Emily Robinson, helped start an organisation called HELP – Help the Endangered Leadbeater’s Possum. They have lead by example in educating fellow students about this tiny creature as well as raising more than $25,000 to help care for the animal in the wild.

Endemic to Victoria and the only Australian mammal restricted in distribution entirely to Victoria, the Leadbeater’s Possum only exists in the Central Highlands forests, Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve and alpine areas between Lake Mountain and Mt Baw Baw.

Populations of the Leadbeater’s have been severely diminished twice through serious bushfires, the first in 1939 and the latest being Black Saturday with estimates that 40 to 50 per cent of their prime habitat was destroyed.

The Leadbeater’s preferred habitat is tree hollows in old growth forest, and sadly, due to a number of factors including timber harvesting (including salvage logging), to bushfires and bushfire prevention methods like fuel breaks and fuel reduction burning, their habitat is severely restricted. Add to that their nocturnal and elusive nature and preservation of the species becomes very challenging.

There is hope, however, says Ms Blair, if logging in their prime habitat immediately ceases. ‘If people knew about this little creature they would act to save it, it’s about awareness,’ she says.

Awareness of the plight of the Leadbeater’s was certainly helped yesterday with a speech by Environmental Communicator and Aquatic Scientist, Sheree Marris. Usually campaigning for marine animals, Sheree was captivated by the plight of this ‘enchanting and elusive’ marsupial and was compelled to do more.

Ms Marris says she wants the Leadbeater’s Possum to be in the hearts and minds of all people and become ‘The People’s Possum’.

It’s certainly a goal everyone who attended yesterday’s function want as well.

The Adore Animals Foundation is producing Leadbeater’s Possum badges which will be available in Victorian Petbarn stores later this month in a bid to raise awareness to help save the species.

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