As It Happens

World's 1st platypus refuge in the works to save elusive 'Australian icon'

The Taronga Conservation Society and the New South Wales State government said they will build the world's first platypus refuge after wildfires, drought and human development destroyed the creature's habitat.

Wildfires, drought and human development have destroyed the creature's habitat

Annie the platypus during a press call at Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia. Taronga Conservation Society Australia announced the world's first platypus refuge, a bid to save the animal from extinction. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Read Story Transcript

The Australian platypus is a sight to behold, with a duck-like bill, webbed feet and body like a beaver. But you're unlikely to see the at-risk mammal in the wild. 

Deadly wildfires and droughts caused by climate change in the past few years have devastated the platypus population, but conservationists now have a plan to rehabilitate the odd-looking creature. 

The Taronga Conservation Society Australia and the New South Wales State government are launching what they say is the world's first platypus refuge.

"Ideally, what we'd like to do is to be able to breed up large populations and then be able to re-wild them," Cameron Kerr, Taronga Conservation Society Australia CEO, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

The conservation group and the government said they will build the specialized facility of ponds and burrows by 2022, and that it will house up to 65 platypuses. It will be built at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, New South Wales. 

A 'very fascinating' creature

The platypus is an "Australian icon," Kerr said. 

It is one of only two mammals that lays eggs. It lives in rivers and waterways, swims with its eyes closed through muddy water and searches for food using electrical impulses at the end of its beak. 

"[It's] very fascinating and one of my favourites," Kerr said. 

Taronga Zoo CEO Cameron Kerr hopes the new refuge, which will be built by 2022, will help conservationist save the platypus from fire and droughts. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Yet very little is known about how many are in the wild. They are elusive, nocturnal and hard to track. What conservationists do know is their numbers have been significantly declining. 

"A hundred years ago in the newspapers, trappers who were interested in these pelts used to be able to catch thousands. And now most Australians are lucky to see a platypus in the wild," Kerr said.

Fears of another 'Black Summer'

The animal is categorized as vulnerable in the Australian state of Victoria and endangered in South Australia. Scientists have pushed for a similar designation in the state of New South Wales. 

A 2020 study from the University of New South Wales warned that the platypus is on the verge of extinction and that its habitat is being destroyed by human development and climate change. 

The deadly Australian wildfires in late 2019 and early 2020, known as the "Black Summer," killed an estimated three million animals and destroyed an area the size of Greece. 

Taronga scientists warn platypus could be extinct in the next 50 years. (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

While Kerr says the platypus adapted to wildfires in Australia over millions of years, its numbers are so small now that another wildfire like that could wipe it out for good. 

"When their populations are terribly small and they've gone through long periods of drought so that they're even more vulnerable, that's when you're likely to wipe out a population," he said.

"That's exactly the sorts of things ... we're seeing now."

The plan is to save up to 65 platypuses should a river dry out or a fire destroy their habitat, breed them at the refuge and reintroduce them to the wild. Kerr calls them "insurance populations." 

"By saving 65 in a location, that's enough that we would be able to re-establish the population in that area if it was to go extinct," Kerr said. 

A firefighter battles a bushfire in northern New South Wales state in November 2019. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

But with so many animals similarly threatened and scientists warning that devastating wildfires are becoming the new norm, Kerr worries the landscape and species won't have a chance to rebound. 

"We do know that the Australian environment's used to fire," he said. "Our big existential challenge is climate change — reducing the time between major flood events, major fire events and major drought periods." 

Written by Sarah Jackson with files from Reuters. Produced by Sonya Varma. 

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now