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The fight to save Lawson Grasslands has been a battle on many fronts. Not only is the community working with ineffective conservation laws; but, a core aspect of this campaign has been putting Grasslands ‘on the map’ as an ecosystem worth saving. It should be considered that if the habitat at Lawson had been a eucalypt forest filled with Koalas, it might have been easier to garner attention and support. 

This phenomenon is referred to as the ‘cute and cuddly bias’ or ‘conservation bias’. Across the world, disproportionate funding and support is channelled towards protecting lovable and magnificent animals, rather than those seen as obscure or boring. Unfortunately many Grassland species fall into the latter category, so their chances of survival on a planet facing climate change, a pollution crisis, and an extinction emergency are even further diminished. 

The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon is a poster species for this issue. Despite being once widespread across the South-east of Australia, it was only formally recognised as a distinct species in 2019. With over 99.5% of its habitat destroyed, it is now relegated to only a few sites across the ACT and Southern Highlands.

The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon is a small and unassuming lizard. Measuring around 150 millimetres long and weighing 5–9 grams – it is so small that you could hold it on your fingertip. Individuals have distinct markings and during the breeding season they can develop yellow-orange or reddish colouring on their throat, head and flanks.

Despite The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon being at extreme risk, only recently was the species proposed to be ‘uplisted’ as critically endangered under our national conservation laws. The application reveals the stark reality of the future for this modest reptile: A 71% population decline in just 10 years, local extinctions of once reliable populations, a small and ever decreasing geographic distribution, and extreme fragmentation making it impossible for individuals to breed between populations. 

These findings beg the question, how did we let it get this far?  The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon is an iconic species that is unique to the ACT region. Shouldn’t its protection be a battle worth fighting? It is likely that in the fight for its life, The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon was working against a cute and cuddly bias, in a world that doesn’t see beauty or value in the smaller and more modest things.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon. In 2021 a breeding facility opened up at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve to safeguard the species against extinction and within the first 9 months 30 individuals were born. 

The story of The Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon is reflective of many other grassland species. This highlights just how many unique species are overlooked and are flying under the radar in the extinction crisis. We need to continue to shine a spotlight on species like the Canberra Grassland Earless Dragon to ensure their continued existence.

Find the listing assessment here.