If cassowaries become extinct, rainforests will suffer.

Airlie Beach, Australia:

With velociraptor-like legs and a striking neon blue neck, the southern cassowary cuts a fearsome figure in the rainforests of northeastern Australia.

These human-sized birds — and their spiky 10-centimeter (four-inch) talons — are best admired from afar.

“It’s a modern-day dinosaur,” said Peter Rolls, rugged president of a community group that protects endangered birds.

Intensely territorial, they hiss and growl deeply when threatened.

“When you first look them in the eye, it can be intimidating, because they have big eyes, and they look right at you and they look a little tough,” Rolls said.

These flightless birds are found only in Australia, New Guinea and some islands of the Pacific Ocean.

The Australian government classifies them as endangered and an estimated 4,500 remain in the wild.

They are considered a “keystone species”, meaning they play an important role in maintaining biodiversity and seed dispersal in the rainforest.

If cassowaries become extinct, rainforests will suffer.

“We thought that if we could save cassowaries, we could also save enough habitat to support many other species,” Rolls explained.

His group is doing what it can to save the mighty birds, which are 1.5 meters (five feet) long and can weigh up to 75 kilograms (165 pounds).

This includes creating signs to tell drivers to slow down, redesigning roads to better protect local habitats and running a cassowary hospital for injured birds.

The main threats to the cassowary are car encroachment, clearing of native habitats, dog attacks and climate change.

“Cassowaries are not aggressive when treated well,” Rolls said, with few recorded deaths caused by the species.

A young Australian boy was killed in 1926 after chasing the bird, which severed his vein, while a Florida man died in 2019 when his pet cassowary attacked him.

‘Naturally decrepit birds’

Over the past 300 years, about 100 of Australia’s unique flora and fauna species have been wiped off the face of the planet.

According to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), this rate of extinction is likely to increase.

“There is still too much to do and the resources are not available to make a significant impact,” said WWF Australia’s Acting Chief Conservation Officer, Darren Grover.

“We are looking at around 2,000 species on the Australian government’s threatened species list and more species are added to the list every year,” he added.

Threats include climate change, habitat loss and invasive species, Grover said.

The Australian government has a national recovery plan to save the iconic cassowary bird — as it does with many other species — which involves working with local and conservation groups.

Much of the country’s conservation efforts focus on protecting keystone species, a concept developed by zoologists in the 1960s.

This is the best approach when resources are limited, Grover said, because it provides effects on flow to other animals in that habitat.

But this strategy can only go so far, he warned: “I don’t think we can ever do enough to save our wildlife in Australia.”

“Cassowaries are amazing species and every time you see them in the wild, it’s fantastic,” he said.

“But be careful because these are naturally aggressive birds, they are big and powerful and we need to give them some space.”

(Other than the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)

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