Remembering Karak: the other Commonwealth Games mascot

It’s Commonwealth Games madness here in my home city of Gold Coast. Excitement is building. As a testament to the extent of my love for sport, I am leaving the city the morning after the Opening Ceremony to head back to Kangaroo Island for the 2018 glossy black-cockatoo breeding season. Black-cockatoos might seem like a convenient way for me to avoid the chaos of the Games (which is true), but there’s actually a connection between black-cockatoos and the Games:

The south-eastern red-tailed black-cockatoo was the official mascot of the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

Who knew?! South-eastern red-tails, along with the Kangaroo Island glossies, are the focus of my PhD. Both are endangered, and both are geographically isolated by a very long way from others of their kind.

The mascot for the 2018 Games is this surfing zinc-clad blue koala, Borobi:


Borobi is the word for koala in the language of the city’s traditional owners, the Yugambeh people. Thumbs up to that!

For the 2006 Melbourne Games, the mascot was this superhero-esque male red-tailed black-cockatoo, Karak:


The name Karak comes from the red-tails’ colloquial name which reflects the sound of their main contact call. I've read the karak is also the Aborginal name for red-tailed black-cockatoos. The black-cockatoo conservation centre in Perth is named Kaarakin. 

 A 2004 article from The Age explains:

One of the nation's most endangered native birds, the south-eastern red-tailed black cockatoo, has been selected as the official mascot for the Melbourne 2006 Commonwealth Games. ….
Conservationists were surprised at the choice. State and federal laws have contributed to the cockatoo's demise.
With fewer than 1000 of the birds left, experts are warning the cockatoo may run out of food in the next 100 years. …..
The cockatoo lives in small pockets of native woodland in the state's west, between the Little Desert and Portland, and in South Australia. According to estimates only about 300 mating pairs of the bird are left.

It’s cool that there was a bit of a conservation undertone happening here. We now know that there’s more like 1500 birds left, but this reflects us getting better at monitoring the birds – not because the population has increased. In fact, the population is almost certainly still declining. There’s probably fewer birds now than there was when Karak was cruising around Melbourne.

The food issue is a very real one, and unfortunately all these years later we still don’t have a good grasp on the extent of this problem. The recovery team monitors food quality throughout the range, and we’ve recently changed the methodology a bit to hopefully get some better insight. We do know that fire affects their food supply in a very dramatic way. My work will hopefully shed some more light on this, specifically how it affects breeding.

As for Borobi, an ABC news article quotes the Games’ organising committee’s CEO:

"Koala is internationally known as Australian and there's a whole lot of conservation issues around koalas that we will pick up," he said.

A touch of conservation there too. Unlike Borobi, who can still be found on the Gold Coast (in my suburban backyard, no less), no Games spectators would have had the delight of seeing Karak in the wild. Red-tails occur several hundred kilometres west of Melbourne, and over the border into South Australia.

Having said that, like red-tails in Victoria, the koala is also a locally threatened species here in south-east Queensland. And declining. The Gold Coast is growing rapidly in some areas, and koala habitat is being lost.

Mascots are supposed to represent the local area, which both Karak and Borobi have done. And both have stories of conservation to tell, which is nice. I wonder, though, how will Borobi help koalas in the wild?

How did karak help red-tails in the wild?

That’s (of course) impossible to measure. Unlike Borobi, who represents a species that I am certain every Games' spectator knows and loves, Karak represented a bird that most people did not and do not know. Was Karak's main purpose in life, other than branding the Games, to raise awareness of this little-known endangered bird?

Since Karak, there have been some new laws in place to help protect red-tails. There’s more monitoring happening now, and the community involvement is excellent. We’re planting trees and putting out artificial nest boxes. There are some very dedicated people involved in the recovery of karak in the wild.

Moreover, the south-eastern red-tailed black-cockatoo is one of the “20 birds by 2020” – the Australian government’s conservation action plan for Australia’s most threatened birds. My research is partly funded by this plan.

Now you know: Black-cockatoos have a Commonwealth Games story, and conservation messaging was part of it. In that vein, during these upcoming Games, spare a thought for Borobi and all the other borobis who are still out there in the wild.