Why was Australian Mammal of the Year so important?

For the past six weeks Cosmos Magazine has been encouraging people to learn about and nurture Australia’s mammals, and to vote for their favourites in the Australian Mammal of the Year competition.

The event captured the imagination of the wildlife community – biologists, ecologists, zookeepers, behavioural specialists, researchers and others determined to fight for the mammals’ survival. We are grateful to the wonderful, inspirational teams of writers and photographers who assisted with this project so willingly.

We asked the two mammal experts behind our finalists, the southern bent-wing bat and the dingo, to explain why they supported Mammal of the Year.

The bat whisperer

Dr Emmi van Harten, Coordinator – Southern Bent-wing Bat National Recovery Team, Zoos Victoria.

I’m thrilled that the COSMOS Australian Mammal of the Year competition has helped raise awareness about Australia’s Southern bent-wing bat and the many other Australian mammals we are lucky to live alongside.

Southern bent-wing bat
Southern bent-wing bat. Credit: Steve Bourne

I’m hoping that now that people know how important this critically endangered species is, they will be inspired to support the conservation initiatives for it. The species has experienced a dramatic decline in recent decades, due to multiple threats including habitat destruction, droughts and a drying climate, and human disturbance. And, while it’s important for people to not disturb bats and other wildlife, people who want an opportunity to see Southern Bent-wing Bats in a wildlife-friendly way can visit Naracoorte National Park, located in the south-east of South Australia. Visitors can go on a tour and see the bats in their natural environment in real time via infrared cameras, without disturbing the bats.

Current population modelling suggests that the Southern Bent-wing Bat could be close to extinction within 36 years (three generations) if the current rate of decline continues. However, we can change this and save the Southern Bent-wing Bat from extinction. The Southern Bent-wing Bat has a national recovery team of species experts, researchers, vets, land managers and representatives from government agencies, zoos and NGOs. This team is implementing the national recovery plan to see it recover to healthy populations. Community support for implementing these and other conservation efforts are vital for changing the trajectory of our threatened species.

Bats make up a quarter of all mammals in Australia and play critical roles in our ecosystems. I am so happy that people are now talking about bats and, hopefully, supporting Zoos Victoria and other conservation organisations’ work to save the Southern Bent-wing Bat and other native wildlife from extinction.

Grey-headed flying-fox with pup.
Grey-headed flying-fox with pup. Credit: Andrew Mercer

The dingo keeper

Dr Euan Ritchie, Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation.

It’s more than a competition.

Way back on October 8th, 2021, I half seriously quipped, why not an Australian Mammal Of The Year competition? And, to my surprise and great joy, Cosmos Magazine said YES, let’s do this!

But why would we want to do this? People often dismiss such competitions as mere frivolous popularity contests. The fact is, Australia has an utterly shameful record when it comes to conserving the more than 350 native mammal species that grace this continent, its skies, and surrounding waters.

At least 39 mammal species have been driven to extinction since European colonisation, and scores more have suffered dramatic declines in their geographical distribution and population sizes, meaning many are tragically likely headed the way of the thylacine, Christmas Island pipistrelle, toolache wallaby, and others. The vast majority of Australia’s mammals (> 85%) are found nowhere else. Whether a numbat, quokka, Tassie devil, northern quoll, or red kangaroo, these species are a part of us and our national identity. And of course, many Indigenous people have deep cultural connections with Australia’s mammals.

Northern quoll
Northern quoll. Credit: Henry Cook/Getty Images

My hope and cunning plan was to draw attention to the incredible diversity of species we share (though often not very well) Australia with. Many Aussies are familiar with some of our iconic marsupials and monotremes, but could barely name more than twenty or so species (let alone this year’s winner, the southern bent-wing bat, though maybe that’ll change now!).

Few could name Australia’s most endangered marsupial and certainly next to none of our more than 150 native placental mammals, which includes the many denizens of the skies, bats, and our often invisible, misidentified and mistreated native rodents. Honestly, if you don’t know what a rakali, eastern pebble mound mouse, broad-toothed rat, or black-footed tree-rat are, you’re missing out!

Broad-toothed rat.
Broad-toothed rat. Credit: Museums Victoria

What I’ve been overjoyed about is the more than 50 articles written about our marvellous mammals, by those who know them best and care for and love them deeply. Not only have we managed to showcase accurate and accessible ecological and conservation information about these species, but we’ve also featured some of Australia’s most gifted nature writers, including many early and mid-career scientists and researchers. Winning!

I’ve personally not seen another ‘my favourite’ species competition that’s provided so much rich, useful information, that hopefully will foster much greater awareness, as well as action by governments, decision-makers, and society, to vastly improve the care and conservation of Australia’s precious mammals.

For the most part the competition has been a genuine joy and raging success, the numbers and engagement speak for themselves! The vast majority of people have championed their favourite species with good humour and vigour, realising it’s not really about a single winner, it’s about celebrating all of Australia’s mammals and doing far better to ensure we continue to have the privilege to meet them, as we walk through our parklands, go spotlighting in a forest at night, dive into the ocean, sit quietly on a creek or drive across our vast deserts. We truly are incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to experience the joys of such encounters.

Photograph of two dingo puppies walking together
Dingo pups. Credit: Nicole Patience / iStock / Getty Images.

Am I disappointed that dingoes made it so close to being the Australian mammal of the year and that #TeamDingo was pipped at the post? No, not at all. Despite working on and caring for dingoes over many years, and being aware of how awfully they’re often still regarded and treated, I’m overjoyed two genuine underdog species have had the spotlight shone on them, and if I wish for anything it’s that #AusMammalOfTheYear comes back bigger and better next year! A huge thank you to all that have contributed to making this year’s contest a great success, including everyone who has engaged online.

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

Visit our voting page here to learn more about the categories and to vote for your picks for Australian Mammal of the Year.

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