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  Two little wordsSteve Russell
 
  Cassowary and pittosporum (Artwork: John Rainbird)  
 
  Cassowary and pittosporum (Artwork: John Rainbird)  

Who would have thought that two little words – slow down – could cause affront to normally law abiding road users. About a decade ago, ‘slow down’ was frequently used to alert local drivers about wildlife crossing roads in the Wet Tropics. ‘Slow down’ was a prominent part of early local non-government campaigns to protect the cassowary, appearing on road signs and stickers accompanied by pictures of a short, tall, fat or thin cassowary.

While attractively presented and readily accessible, the ‘slow down’ campaign was not as successful as it should have been. Stickers were very rarely seen on vehicles and the advisory signs were largely ignored by road users. At the same time the number of road strikes involving cassowaries continued to grow across the Wet Tropics, with the highest number of incidents occurring in the Mission Beach area.

As a local councillor at the time, it was not long before I came to understand that the ‘slow down’ approach was, in fact, alienating a large number of residents. Most residents considered themselves to be safe drivers. They wondered who was behind the ‘slow down’ campaign and questioned what right they had to impose value judgements on how locals used roads in the Wet Tropics. I had to admit that perhaps there were other ways to get the message across. I began to work with a range of stakeholders to improve and coordinate the campaign to reduce cassowary deaths on our roadways.

The rise in the number of cassowary strikes, the majority attended and reported on by wildlife managers, provided a significant amount of data about the circumstances of each strike. The data clearly showed that speed was not always a cause. Factors such as time of day, shadow, light reflection and vegetation may also have contributed to the death or injury of a cassowary on the road. The local drivers had a point that slowing down may not be the solution.

Interestingly, most of the road users who were unfortunate enough to collide with a cassowary did not come away from the incident unscathed. They often suffered from shock and stress and their cars incurred extensive panel damage. So we were not just dealing with a conservation issue, but also a public safety issue where there was a very real risk of trauma for the road user as well as the cassowary.

Take care sticker (artwork: WTMA)

In cooperation with a range of government agencies and industry and community groups we introduced a suite of active and passive measures to reduce cassowary incidents on Mission Beach roads. Not all of these initiatives were well accepted by the road users – extra large signs and reduced speed limits in some areas still continue to aggravate drivers, but they have helped to reduce the number of cassowary road deaths.

However, one of the small successes was the change from the message ‘slow down’ to the message ‘take care’. The change was deliberate – to move the emphasis away from speeding drivers and to ask the community in general to take care. It eliminated any suggestion of blame where a cassowary strike occurred and acknowledged the risk to road users as well. The ‘take care’ stickers were promoted with the help of the tourism and transport industries as well as the conservation sector. They were an immediate winner, with the initial print run exhausted within weeks. Since then reprints have occurred annually.

The familiar ‘take care’ message can now be seen proudly displayed prominently across the Wet Tropics and serves to remind us of our obligation to look after both ourselves and our very special natural environment. The ‘take care’ message has become a Wet Tropics icon. Let us ensure we continue to send this and other positive messages to conserve the fauna and flora of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

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Steve Russell

Steve has been an active force behind cassowary conservation in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area for over a decade. He was a member and interim chair of the Community Consultative Committee and a member of the Wet Tropics Cassowary Advisory Group for seven years, five as the chair. Steve’s tenacity and expertise in local government and community understanding has helped him rally to decrease cassowary deaths on roads and limit the destruction of their habitat through urban development across the Wet Tropics region. He has also implemented and financed a number of cassowary projects in the Mission Beach area and is an ongoing sponsor of the Young Cassowary Awards. He received a Cassowary Award in 2005. Steve lives a reclusive life at Mission Beach with his wife, Meredith, where they operate a small tourism venture.

John Rainbird

Born and raised in South Africa, John now lives in Kuranda with his artist wife, Fiona, and two girls, Ruby and Jorgie. His passions include bringing people together to progress conservation and sustainability, natural history, art, photography, music and his family. He has served on the WTMA board and was coordinator of Cairns and Far North Environment Centre for five years. He currently works for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

 
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