You might not have heard of the Leadbeater’s possum. It’s a tiny marsupial that lives just outside Melbourne, in the Victorian Central Highlands. It’s endemic to Victoria, which means that it doesn’t live anywhere else in the world. This makes it particularly vulnerable because anything that destroys its habitat reduces its chance of existence.

There’s a lot destroying its habitat. There’s fire, which Victorian’s understand is a constant threat particularly in the summer months, and there’s also our use of the forest through logging. Significantly, the devastating 2009 fires destroyed almost half of the possum’s habitat and logging in the area has continued ever since.

The population of the possum, which is Victoria’s faunal emblem, has reduced so rapidly (it’s declined by 80% since the mid-1980s) and population numbers are so low (estimated to be between 2,000 and 4,000 left) that Greg Hunt, the federal government’s Environment Minister, has declared the possum as critically endangered.

The last of his kind? |Image: Takver via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

We know a lot about this possum. Professor David Lindenmayer has been studying the possum and its habitat for over 30 years. We know that it lives in tree hollows, which only start to develop when trees are around 120 years old, it likes trees to be regularly spaced, as it’s territorial and doesn’t like to live too close to others, and needs trees with peeling bark, that houses the insects and sap that it feeds on.

Specifically, it lives in forests with trees of mixed ages, including old growth trees, and Mountain Ash eucalypts, which are one of the tallest trees in the world growing from 80 to 100 metres. The problem we are facing is that the area that the possum lives in is being logged, primarily for woodchips for paper, and is fire prone. Logging makes the forest even more fire prone and subject to higher intensity fires.

We have a choice in Victoria about whether or not we want to save this species from extinction. I know when I talk to people about this issue they’re unconcerned about a possum. But the issue isn’t just the possum; there is a whole lot more.

Australia has the worst extinction rate of mammals in the world, yet we are knowingly behaving in a way that will ensure that this species will also cease to exist. This is irresponsible, regardless of the species, but we remain comfortable with logging native, and old growth forests to turn into pulp for paper. And we’re doing all of this, just over an hour from the centre of Melbourne.

The two big threats to Leadbeater's Possum are logging and bush fire. |Image: GreensMPs via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

There is always a tension in society. We need to protect industries and jobs, as these are people’s livelihoods and even family traditions, but we also need to consider our use of the environment and the impacts that our use has. It’s an important debate, though arguably, jobs are given more weight because even though the environment gives us clean air, water and carbon storage, it doesn’t have a voice.

This declaration that the Leadbeater’s possum is critically endangered is a strong message that we need to consider our behaviour, and the impact it will have on the long term future of ourselves and the species in our care.

Main image: D. Harley/Greens MPs via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)