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Native snails confined to fridge

Published: 8:18PM Thursday May 06, 2010 Source: Close Up

  • Powelliphanta augusta
    Powelliphanta augusta

They are probably the world's most expensive snails, so why are they living in ice cream containers in a fridge?

Four years ago controversy erupted over the Powelliphanta augusta snail. It was a battle of the environmentalists versus the miners.

Solid Energy wanted the coal from the snail's habitat at Mount Augusta Ridge Stockton mine, the home of 6,000 of snails.

Despite the protests and the court battles the mining went ahead.

Solid Energy agreed to remove the snails with 4,000 relocated, however there were still no guarantees they would survive. The rest were kept in captivity to safeguard the population from extinction.

Today, 1,300 of the evacuated snails are still living in small two-litre ice cream containers in DOC fridges and lot of work (and money - $7 million so far) goes into keeping the snails alive.

"Ninety seven percent of the adults survive this way, so that's positive, however obviously we'd like to see them back in the wild," says Kerry Westen, snail supervisor.

"We don't have anywhere in the wild to put them, their remaining habitat has been mined," she says.

The snails are kept in a state of induced hibernation in the fridge, but 200 live in environmental chambers, where it is hoped they will breed.

However the problem is, once they do breed, over 80% of the baby snails die.

And when released into the wild, the survival rates ranges from 55% in one spot to a much healthier 79% in another.

Experts say the species' survival can only be sustained long-term if more than 80% survive.

Solid Energy isn't all that concerned.

"We're relatively happy that there's no signs of disaster looming. We've still a great deal of work to do," says Mark Pizey of Solid Energy.

However long-time protesters who have been trying to save the snails for years say the situation is devastating.

"The fact that the snails are dying out was inevitable from the start and it's tragic and depressing but that's the reality of the situation," says Graham Jury, snail supporter.

"The really concerning thing is because we still have Powelliphanta augusta alive in captivity, it's being hailed as a success story, Solid Energy has saved this animal. They haven't, they've doomed it," he says.

There is one thing the miners and the environmentalists agree on. This snail trail has been an expensive one.

"It was an exceptional waste of money, the snails were doomed from the start," says Graham.

And on their ultimate survival, only time will tell if the species can be preserved.