The infamous, lackluster Johnny Depp performance alerting the world to Australia’s biosecurity laws is comic, but the underlying message is no laughing matter.
Since European settlement of the continent, there is an unfortunate history of introducing plant and animal species and disrupting its unique, natural ecosystems. From rabbits, foxes and cane-toads, to weeds, to bacterial and viral plagues, we have a history of importing pestilence into this isolated southern continent.
My professional work promotes systems thinking and analysis – an understanding that in the natural world, relationships are rarely simple and linear, but complex and interdependent.
Seeking a quick fix, or a simple cause-effect result often backfires due to other side effects or feedback loops in the system. And often the unintended consequences outgrow the original issue.
As a well-known example, rabbits arrived with the First Fleet in 1788, and were brought in by European settlers for food. But they became a problem later when released into the wild for hunting. Just a few rabbits for a bit of sport, what could possibly go wrong?!
When set free on the land, they multiplied like, well rabbits, and with few natural predators, soon spread across the continent. They wreaked havoc on the native flora and fauna by over-grazing native plants, displacing native burrowing mammals and competing for scarce food, and spreading diseases. And economically, they destroy over $100 million of agricultural crops each year. The problem was so serious that in the early 1900s, Western Australia build 3,200kms [check] of wire fencing across the continent to try to slow down its westward spread – the celebrated “Rabbit-proof fence” (or 3 of them to be accurate). Despite many efforts to control their proliferation, there are still an estimated 200 million wild rabbits across the continent, spawned from an initial batch of just 24 rabbits released into the wild back in 1859.
But this is just one story in the struggle to protect the flora and fauna of the Australian bush.
This was brought home vividly in our first stop in the bush – at the Australian Wildlife Conservatory (AWC) Mt Gibson Sanctuary (about 4 hours NE from Perth)
Here, as in its multiple wildlife sanctuaries around the country, AWC is literally battling to save native animals from feral and introduced predators such as cats and foxes.
Apart from the well-known kangaroos, koalas, and even quokkas, evolution Australian-style has given rise to an array of species of the small, cute, furry, marsupial variety: bandicoots, bilbys, numbats and quolls, for example. However, these cute furballs make tasty treats for the burgeoning number of cats and foxes in the bush. And the impact is devastating.
In a small area similar to the AWC Mount Gibson fenced 7,800 hectares, some 50 cats would devour 73,000 small mammals per year.
Across the continent, feral cats kill more than one million mammals, one million small reptiles and one million birds every day, pushing many of the native Australian species towards endangerment and extinction (www.australianwildlife.org).
At great private expense, AWC have built a new fence around the perimeter of a feral-animal free zone, and rangers patrol to deter or eliminate predators, and support scientific research.
In fact, the scientific integrity behind AWC operations is at the forefront of conservation efforts across the nation, and has resulted in the successful reintroduction and repopulation of 8 (soon to be 10) endangered species at Mt Gibson, and recent partnerships with state governments to manage more and more designated conservation areas nationwide.
In addition to learning about the mission, and hearing a presentation from the AWC sanctuary manager Melissa and rangers, we also had a chance to explore some pristine bush and ancient rock formations some 3 billion years old – dating back into the mists of the formation of the Earth (4.5 billion years).
We camped out in their excellent campground facilities – unpacked the trusty camper trailer, our home for the next 3 months – and spent our first few hours reorganizing, repacking and figuring out how we are going to make this all work!
But it was a beautiful environment, we learned a lot about AWCs conservation efforts and the girls were even inspired to make their first vlog for this trip…! (I will update and link this soon).
Back on the road, heading north…