We recently sent Brooke out to Bathurst to meet wildlife ecologist and advocate, George Madani, and talk all things fire-breathing Grassland Earless Dragon.


We acknowledge that this interview took place on the traditional Country of the Wiradjuri people who have occupied and cared for the lands, waters, and their inhabitants for thousands of years. We pay our respects to them as the Traditional Custodians and recognise that sovereignty was never ceded.

‘Do dragons breathe fire?’

As a serious journalist, this was, of course, the burning question I started with as I sat chatting to wildlife ecologist George Madani one sunny spring afternoon in Bathurst.

George is the founder of the Grassland Earless Dragon Alliance, which is in town to rally the local community around the survival of a local lizard species called the Bathurst Grassland Earless Dragon.

At just three inches long and weighing less than a 20-cent coin, it turns out that the Bathurst Earless Dragon doesn’t breathe fire. But that doesn’t make this little reptile any less impressive – or any less in need of our help.


Ummm hey guy | Photo by Lachlan Hall

This could be the first reptile to go extinct on mainland Australia

The Bathurst Earless Dragon hasn’t been seen since the mid-1990s. And, if it’s not found soon, it could become mainland Australia’s first reptile species to disappear forever.

Sadly, it’s not the first dragon to hold this title.

‘In 1966, local Bathurst naturalists Ian McCartney and Gavin Waters sent specimens of some lizards they’d found to the Australian Museum,’ explains George. ‘Grassland Earless Dragons were previously thought to be a single species, but in 2019 were recognised as four distinct species; the Bathurst, Monaro, Victorian, and Canberra dragons.’

Until earlier this year, the Victorian dragon hadn’t been seen since 1969 and was considered ‘critically endangered and potentially extinct’. Meanwhile, alongside the Bathurst dragon, the Canberra dragon was also listed as ‘critically endangered’, and the Monaro species ‘endangered’.

‘We’ve already got the worst mammal extinction record in the world, and the Victorian dragon, prior to this year, was considered to be the first potential extinction of a reptile on mainland Australia,’ says George.

‘Now it’s been rediscovered, hope has been reignited, but if we don’t find the Bathurst species, then we’re back to where we started.’

The Earless Dragon’s Habitat Needs to be ‘Just Right’

The biggest threat to all of the dragon species is habitat loss and degradation.

‘We call them a Goldilocks species when it comes to habitat,’ says George.

‘They live in grasslands but if it’s too thick and dense, they can’t move around, they can’t bask, they can’t forage. But if it’s too open, then there’s no cover. It needs to be just right.’


Can anyone else hear the wind moving? | Photo by Ryan Colley


According to George, there’s only 1% of their primo habitat left, and what’s remaining is mainly on private property. That’s why the volunteer-run alliance – which George set up as a passion project after working with the NSW Government to survey the Monaro species – is in Bathurst tonight.

‘Often, if a landowner or farmer hears that they’ve got an endangered species on their property, they’re going to freak out because they think it will impact what they’re able to do on the land,’ says George. ‘But the thing is, these dragons, the habitat that they rely on is good habitat for farmers too.’

George’s message is clear. If dragons occur on your property as a landholder, then it probably means you’re doing a good job.

‘We want to educate landowners about the species and let them know they can live in harmony,’ says George. ‘Proper grazing regimes, striking a balance between open grassland and cover, are essential.’


‘I called you all here today to talk about dragons’


It’s something that fellow alliance member Tim McGrath agrees with. Tim conducted his postgraduate studies on the Monaro Grassland Earless Dragon a decade ago and now works in conservation and land management for the government.

‘These dragons are part of Country. They’re part of Wiradjuri Country. They’re part of the landscape. They’re all part of the story,’ Tim explains. ‘Their presence on an agricultural landscape is an indicator that there’s a very healthy ecosystem there. The message is for farmers not to be afraid.’

The Process Behind Finding Dragon Habitat

Helping with the hunt for habitat is Ted Stein from the University of Newcastle, who’s conducting an honours project to refine survey locations for the Bathurst Grassland Earless Dragon. He uses fieldwork combined with statistical software and online databases to create predictive models for likely habitat areas.


This one is juuuuust right | @alexjpike


‘Looking for this dragon is like looking for a needle with legs in a haystack that’s 12,000km squared. We really do need to narrow it down,’ he laughs.

Luckily, there are some special guests in attendance at tonight’s event who are also helping to narrow down the search. Ian McCartney and Gavin Waters (who first sent the dragons to the Australian Museum) are marking on maps where they last saw the dragon three decades ago.


Peter Carter & Ian McCartney


The Bathurst dragon is actually named after Ian – who has a deep spiritual connection with reptiles. Its official science-y name is Tympanocryptis mccartneyi.

‘How does it feel to have a dragon named after me?,’ says Ian. ‘It doesn’t breathe fire or fly but it’d say it’s pretty important.’

Spider Burrows and Dragons Named Leon

Once potential habitat is identified, surveys for the species begin. If (but I like to say when) the team finds the Bathurst species, they plan to use a similar set-up to what’s used to survey the Monaro species. This includes two main types of traps – roof tiles, that simulate the natural rocks where the dragons seek shelter, and an artificial wolf spider burrow.

‘They use these burrows naturally, so the artificial ones provide extra habitat and make it easier to survey,’ says George. ‘We identify individuals like Leon through their unique back patterns without the need for tagging.’


Hello? Who knocked? | Photo by George Madani


Wondering who Leon is? Well, Leon is somewhat of a celebrity in the lizard-ing world. Previously, it was thought that earless dragons only lived for a year, but the Alliance has found Leon, a Monaro dragon, every year for five years. ‘It’s a true testament to their resilience,’ explains George.

When it comes to finding Leon and the other Monaro dragons, the team often turns to Jesse Campbell, AKA ‘the bloodhound’. Jesse is a student at the University of Wollongong, specialising in Ecology and Conservation Biology.


Jesse Campbell, AKA ‘the bloodhound’


‘They’re quite small and look like a little scaly nugget,’ he says. ‘They’re really chubby and they don’t climb. So if you see it in a tree or climbing, you know it’s not an earless dragon.’

Working Together to Make a Brighter Future for the Dragons

For George, the key to saving this species is to get people caring. He wants local communities to have pride in these dragons that occur only in their regions and nowhere else in the world.


Watch me rear my cute head | Photo by George Madani


‘Imagine an under-nines soccer team called the Monaro dragons or the Bathurst dragons,’ says George. ‘Or a mural of the dragon plastered on the wall outside the local Woolies. I’d love that! That sense of ownership will empower landowners to take active roles in preserving the dragon’s habitat.’

He’d also like to replicate the success of advocacy initiatives like the Tallaganda State Forest campaign by WWF, which managed to secure an injunction to halt logging whilst a review was conducted, with the ultimate goal of stopping it altogether and saving the Greater Glider. He calls for everyone to ask questions, interact, and spread the word about the dragons to raise awareness of their importance.

‘These dragons are allowed to exist the same way we’re allowed to exist, or this tree’s allowed to exist, that bird flying over there is allowed to exist, everything is part of this intertwined ecology,’ George says. ‘They’ve called this place home for hundreds of thousands of years. I think they should be able to continue to call it home for several hundred thousand years more.’


Good luck out there lil fella | Photo by Lachlan Hall


To get involved with the Grassland Earless Dragon Alliance and to stay up to date, follow the Facebook page.


Feature photo by @jesseswildlife

This article is part of Act Local, our project to champion grassroots conservationists who are getting their hands dirty and having a positive environmental impact in their local communities. Check it out!