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Far North Queensland, the Superlative Wet Tropics & Heritage Listing – Series 1.2 Endangered

a close up of a sign

Welcome to the second of our series of articles about the World Heritage Listing of the Wet Tropics. We have already discussed about the natural beauty of the region, and it is amazing. But this is only a fraction of the importance of the region and it’s universal value. Throughout it’s huge array of diversity in flora and fauna the wet tropics is home to many endangered and endemic species. Endemic is a technical term meaning “native and restricted to a certain place”. A high proportion of the flora and fauna around the Wet Tropics is only found within restricted regions around the area. Many of these are endangered or in very low numbers.

Series 2 of 4 – Endangered – UNESCO World Heritage Listed

Thus the Wet Tropics meets #10 of the UNESCO’s world Heritage criteria. The Wet Tropics “contains the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation”.

The Wet Tropics is a major region of study due to its significance in the form of geological, biological, and conservational importance. The region was logged in many parts before it was world heritage listed in 1988. Due to the change in perspective in the 1980’s, the region went from being considered economically important (for logging) to being environmentally essential. This change brought about much more in depth of research into this environment and the salient nature of the region. Most of the research into the biological biodiversity and ecological research began after the region was inscribed as world heritage listed. That means the majority of research into the Wet Tropics is only 30 years old. For example it was well after that the the James Cook University’s (JCU) Canopy Crane Research Station was erected, followed by the opening of the Daintree Rainforest Observatory in 2014. It has been during this time the full extent of knowledge about the region has begun to trickle in. The first time I guided in the Wet Tropics the research stated that there was somewhere in the vicinity of 3000 varieties of vascular plant species, now the number we hear floated around is closer to 5000. Research is always continuing and our knowledge about the region is always improving. It is quite possible with all the research going into the Wet Tropics that this number will continue to expand as we learn more.

Biological diversity is immense in the region and it important to realise the amount of variety there is here. To explain this to you we need to look at the figures. The Wet Tropics makes up 0.26% of Australia’s land mass but has a disproportionate variety in flora and fauna. Many varieties of our ancient tree species thrive in this region, it displays 65% of Australian fern species, 21% of the cycad species, and 30% of our orchids. There are over 400 bird species (about 40%), 55% of our bats, 60% of butterflies and 30% of our marsupial varieties. For such an area to hold this much current day and historical knowledge about the worlds flora and fauna is truly staggering and extremely rare in this world.

When passengers come on board they are generally most interested in our stand out threatened species. The list is varied with gargantuan crocodiles, prehistoric cassowaries, and the elusive Lumholtz tree kangaroo hiding out in the Milky pines.

The estuarine crocodile (salty) is probably the most desirable creatures for tourists to want to get a glimpse of. They are an apex predator which has been around for 160 million years who were able to witness the dinosaurs. Of the crocodile species many have become extinct and more recently many of them have become endangered due to hunting and the destruction of the regions natural habitat. They live in estuaries, rivers, and coastal waters and are just as much at home in both fresh and salt water, and are found along the FNQ coastline. Crocodiles over the past have been captured and confirmed to be longer than 8m long and weighing tons. Although they stopped hunting crocs in 1974 when they were put on the endangered species list most of the males are no bigger than 5 metres with Scarface (approx 5.4m) in the Daintree river the largest one I know of. If you are looking to do a croc cruise to spot a beast, boat tours near Innisfail and the Daintree river are fantastic. Our tour down to Mission Beach includes a croc cruise as well.

The curtly cassowary is a creature that gets people’s heart racing. Any mention of this surly bird on tour and the passengers get excited. When we do spot them the cameras come out quicker than a blink of the eye. Another endangered prehistoric pet of the rainforest, the Southern Cassowary can grow up to 2m in height and weigh over 60kg, and with that weight it is a flightless bird as you can imagine. These solitary animals are thought to number in the low thousands and with the crippling of their habitat during the 1900’s and we are very fortunate to see them as often as we do. They are stunning birds and have always made me think of an emu with a great makeup job. Their face and neck are covered in vibrant reds, all shades blue and purple with a splatter of amber and yellow. The best places to spot Cassowaries include Ettie Bay, Mission Beach, Cape Tribulation and even up at Diner Falls in the Tablelands.

In the tablelands there are also numerous varieties of macropods (wallabies, kangaroos, wallaroos) and the most elusive and fascinating of them is the very territorial Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo. When mentioning tree kangaroos on tour I am met with a baffled response with many querying if kangaroos can live in trees. Well yes, there are 14 species of roo that call the trees home (2 in the wet tropics), and due to the destruction of their habitat (logging and urbanisation) over the decades they are critically endangered. These cousins of the kangaroo are the largest tree dwelling marsupials in Australia and have much stronger forearms than their land based family and have a proportionally longer tail for balance. The Lumholtz tree kangaroo is found in a few areas around the tableland, and even though they don’t move far from home they are extremely well camouflaged so are quite difficult to spot.

So here are just three of the many endangered species found in the Wet Tropics. You can look at the attached list for more examples and if you wish to find out more about the three we have discussed there will soon be more blogs in our Fauna section. Remember there are more than 500 endangered or protected plant species (330 are endemic), and over 50 species of endangered animals (22 are endemic) in the Wet Tropics. It is imperative we protect this environment as it holds so many relics from a bygone era and so much embedded knowledge about nature. It is of fundamental importance to conservation.