The Last Dragon, written by Charles Massy and illustrated by Mandy Foot, is the story of a small, rarely seen lizard, Timpo, who is the last of his kind in his valley. Convinced he is not the only Monaro grassland earless dragon left, Timpo and his companion Wolfie the spider set off across the windswept Monaro plains in search of others.
The following postscript, written by Charles Massy, is taken from The Last Dragon. Massy highlights the impact that farming and grazing have had on the Monaro plains. As a result, the once vibrant habitat has changed substantially and has spelled an uncertain future of the Monaro grassland earless dragon.
The Monaro grassland earless dragon (Tympanocryptis osbornei or ‘Osborne’s hidden-ear dragon’) is one of Australia’s rarest reptiles.
It is small, weighing between 6 and 9 grams, and has a very short lifespan. It lays only three to six eggs once a year, just under the ground where the sun can warm them. These egg beds can dry out or be disturbed by animal hooves, machines or predatory insects like spiders. Whole local populations can suddenly disappear.
The dragons’ numbers have been severely impacted by habitat damage and loss. Open grasslands, like those of Narrawallee, have been overgrazed by sheep and cattle, and damaged by ploughing and other farming and building activities.
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, and perhaps for more than 20,000 years, the Ngarigo nation were the custodians of the Monaro grasslands. They regularly burnt the grasses where the dragon lived, managing the land carefully and skilfully to promote a sustainable food supply (including perhaps the occasional dragon). This maintained the health and diversity of the grasslands, and the fauna living within them.
Captain Mark John Currie was one of the first Europeans to alert settlers to the rich and diverse Monaro grasslands. On 1 June 1823, he recorded in his diary: ‘passed through a chain of clear downs to some very extensive ones ... From ... natives we learned that the clear country before us was called Monaroo’. After this visit, the European settlers arrived and ‘took up’ country. The destruction of the Monaro grasslands started with the beginning of this settlement.
The problem was that the Australian climate—highly variable, with frequent droughts—and the ancient coevolved vegetation and generally poorer soils were vastly different to those in north-western Europe and Britain where the settlers came from. Polish explorer Count Paul Strzelecki delivered a report to Governor Gipps in 1840 about his brief travels through the Monaro. He told Gipps that the effects of the drought at that time were not just due to the climate and overburning of the grass by squatters, but to:
the alteration which colonisation impresses on its surface; the herbaceous, high and thick plants ... which so well clothed the crust and sheltered the moisture, have disappeared under the innumerable flocks and axes which the settlers have introduced. The soil, thus bared, was and is ... abandoned ... The disturbance ... extends the dryness of the soil, augments its aridity …
That is, poor management from overgrazing by sheep and cattle was the destroyer of both grasslands and grassy woodlands, and therefore of the Monaro’s plant and animal biodiversity.
In his famous book, Discovering Monaro. A Study of Man’s Impact on His Environment (1972), historian W.K. (Keith) Hancock was able to document this ‘impact’ of European mismanagement. His extraordinary research notes and papers for the book are held in the archives of the National Library of Australia.
Hancock revealed that, upon the arrival of European settlers, the native fauna was so abundant that they regularly shot lyrebirds and other, now rare, animals for sport. Scottish visitor Farquhar McKenzie noted in his diary of 1837 that: ‘When out shooting duck at Bredbow river I saw a number of those curious animals the Platibus and fired at them repeatedly.’
However, it was the overgrazing by sheep and cattle that continued to degrade the diverse flora and fauna of the Monaro grasslands, especially in drought times. This is graphically captured in a vivid recollection by Monaro settler William Crisp, whose records Hancock discovered. Crisp recalled:
Before the passing of the Land Act [the Robertson Land Act of 1861, which in places like the Monaro led to overstocking] ... the Matong Creek for about five miles ... was a succession of deep waterholes, there being no high banks, and grass grew to the water’s edge. Hundreds of wild ducks could be seen along these waterholes, and platypus and divers were plentiful. Five years after the passing of the Act the whole length ... became a bed of sand, owing to soil erosion caused by sheep ... the best grasses for cattle disappeared ... I have seen the kangaroo grass, when in seed, like a field of wheat three feet high. This disappeared, as also did many of the wild birds, including the duck and the turkey [the Plains bustard, a grassland bird].
As Hancock concluded: ‘there is nothing good to be said about what the squatters did to the pastures. In Monaro as elsewhere, they made one blade of grass grow where two had grown before’.
However, despite nearly 200 years of overgrazing, the Monaro grassland earless dragon did not become extinct.
These dragon-lizards were first discovered by scientists in 1907 when two specimens were collected and sent to the Australian Museum in Sydney. They were then considered extinct until the late 1980s when another scientist, Dr Will Osborne from the University of Canberra, found them again on the Monaro (which is why this little dragon is named after him).
Today, the dragon, a grassland specialist, remains close to extinction. It is placed very high on the endangered species list for Australia, and is one of the most endangered reptiles in the world. Fortunately, with the help of scientists, landholders like my family are implementing ecological grazing practices. At our farm, we also work with land manager Rod Mason, an Elder of the Ngarigo nation, incorporating traditional Indigenous land management practices into our attempt to preserve healthy temperate grasslands for the dragons. We all must do what we can to save these beautiful, cheeky, yet rarely seen, little animals!
Dr. Massy is widely known and has presented all over the world. He became an advocate for regenerative farming during the 1980s drought, which forced him to radically change his approach to farming. He is the author of The Last Dragon as well as other books about the Australian sheep industry. Dr. Massy has managed Severn Park, an 1820 ha sheep, and cattle property on the Monaro for 40 years. Concern at ongoing land degradation and humanity’s sustainability challenge led him to return to university in 2009 to undertake a PhD in Human Ecology. He is a Research Associate of the Australian National University and has been awarded an OAM for services to the Wool Industry and Community.
- What animals are considered endangered or under threat in your area? How can the community help these animals overcome the threat to their survival? If there are no animals in your area, choose a familiar animal listed as under threat or endangered.
- As a class, read a copy of The Last Dragon if one is available. Have students reflect on the thought of Timpo being the last of his kind and what that would mean if it were true. If a copy of the book is not available, share the story of Lonesome George, the last know Pinta Island tortoise, or Benjamin, the last known thylacine (or Tasmanian tiger). Discuss what the loss of these species means for their ecosystems and the world at large.
- The Australia continent was home to many species that predated humans and became extinct before the current Holocene epoch including the muttaburrasaurus and the hippo-sized marsupial diprotodon. But scientists believe that more than 100 endemic Australian species have gone extinct (or extinct in the wild) since 1788.
- Hold a class debate to appraise the human impact on Australia’s fauna since 1788.
- Consider the events in Australia since then.
- Consider the conditions of life for people in Australia since that time.
- Consider the understanding of the natural world since that time.
- Were there any other considerations that may have contributed to extinction occurring?
- Hold a class debate to appraise the human impact on Australia’s fauna since 1788.
- Watch Charles Massy and George Madani as they discuss the Monaro grasslands earless dragon in the event video ‘The Last Dragon’ (see link above)
- Learn more about the conservation of the Monaro grasslands earless dragon in this conservation plan developed by the ACT Government.