Cyclone Yasi just hit Mission Beach and other places in Far North Queensland. As well as the inevitable human suffering in emotional and financial terms, there is enormous suffering on the part of animals, the rainforest and the Great Barrier Reef. 250 km/hour winds rip down trees and the big waves trash the coral.
The southern cassowary (one of the three cassowary species living in New Guinea and northern Australia, and the only one in Australia) is on the way to extinction and one of its last strongholds was Mission Beach, which category 5 (the most severe) Yasi struck full-on a couple of days ago. It’s too early to find out what’s happened to those cassowaries. I visited Mission Beach twenty years ago and went looking for them, but even then they were rare.
Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius) live predominantly in rainforest, and feed mainly on the fallen fruits of rainforest trees. The seed passes through the digestive system, priming it to germinate when it hits the ground again. There’s a mutual dependency between the bird and some 150 plant species, which need the bird to distribute their seeds.
The female lays the eggs and the male incubates and rears them. Adults can reach 1.8 metres tall and weigh 60 kg, living 30-40 years. They are flightless, but can defend themselves with the large pointed toes on their strong legs. Myth has it that they disembowel attacking dogs in a similar way to kangaroos.
Their main threats are humans (cars and illegal hunting), dogs, clearing of rainforest and competition for food from feral pigs. No one knows exactly how many are left as it’s difficult to track them in the rainforest, but several studies are underway to find out. In June 2010, there were reported to be only 40 adults (only 17 breeding females), 28 sub-adults (non-breeders) and 31 chicks in the Mission Beach area. They face starvation whenever a cyclone rips up the rainforest. And because of the increasing frequency of cyclones, the rainforest does not get time to recover sufficiently before the next one.