In the past twelve months, rewilding has become somewhat of a conservation buzzword right across the world. Despite having multiple definitions, rewilding is generally thought of as the process of returning flora, fauna and communities to their historical range. This stems from a number of conservation success stories, such as the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park or the large-scale return of Europe’s top predators. As a result, organisations such as Rewilding Australia have sprung up, advocating a “paradigm shift” from passive conservation towards active rehabilitation and reintroduction of species. However, for Rewilding Australia founder Rob Brewster, rewilding is more than just a conservation mechanism; ‘It's about filling those vacant rock crevices, and hollow logs with the marsupials that evolved over millions of years to fill these niches. It's about acknowledging that the world should be a wilder place - and that humankind but merely shares a spot in this wild world!”
“I also think rewilding is as much about protecting biodiversity as it is about protecting humanity. Without a wild world, well, what’s the point of it all in terms of our own existence? A biologically sterile world just won't be an exciting place to live. Our ancestors will think very poorly of us. Is that what we want our legacy to be?” It’s this type of thinking that Rob wants to instill throughout Australia – the idea that our ecosystems can be a place of wonder, if we help conserve and restore them. “I've been able to just sit and watch a tiger quoll slink through the bush. I've seen devils run from a log I've sat on and I've felt the ancientness of an ecosystem that truly feels alive with biodiversity. And then I've returned to walk in the empty forests of Victoria and New South Wales. My companions often don't even know that the forests were once alive with activity. But I know...and all I can think of is how we could restore it.”
So, given their early stages of development, what does Rewilding Australia hope to achieve in the near future? For Rob, the first major step for rewilding in Australia is to establish a wild Tasmanian Devil population on the mainland; “I'd love to have shown that indeed devils have been able to put a small dent in our feral predator populations, and that as a result, some of our smaller threatened mammals have shown signs of improvements.”
Importantly, Rob suggests the perfect place for the Tasmanian Devil to call home on the mainland is right in Melbourne’s backyard – Wilsons Promontory.” It‘s a peninsula – which means that it offers an easier site for the management of species – as everything can only enter or exit the region via one route, rather than dispersing over the entire boundary of a site. Additionally, some of Australia’s finest ecologists have undertaken baseline surveys of the Prom’s current fauna (Read more here). So we know what’s there now, and we have the opportunity to rigorously monitor the interaction of the devil with these species.”
To Rob (and others), returning devils to Victoria just makes sense. “The devil survived on mainland Australia until relatively recently, it is our largest remaining marsupial carnivore, and it is struggling in the wild in Tasmania, where the Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) is decimating the population. It’s time to repay the favour to Tasmania, which, having a geographically separated population of devils managed to save it from extinction when it disappeared from the mainland. Devils also offer hope against cats and foxes, which often leave their young in dens while they hunt our wildlife, so it could greatly benefit mainland ecosystems.”
Notably, with hundreds of devils currently in captive breeding programs across the country, rewilding devils into a place like Wilsons Promontory should actually be quite easy. “There are hundreds of devils in captive breeding programs… costing literally millions of dollars each year to keep in captivity. With indications that the disease may persist in Tasmania for the next 25 years, we're going to have to work out an ethical solution to re-homing these devils...because it is completely nonviable to keep them generation after generation in captivity for the next two or three decades – maybe longer, and we certainly can’t release them back into the wild in Tasmania while the disease persists.”
With the large amount of debate around dingoes in Australia at present, with many scientists are advocating returning them to their previous range throughout Australia. Rob reckons it’s something that should definitely be given a go, at least in some areas; “Research has suggested that the dingo does seem to provide a positive ecological role in the presence of cats and foxes… suggesting that intact dingo populations have the ability to regulate, to some degree, feral pests. This may then allow some of our other species to hang on a little better. There's a proposal to trial the relocation of the dingo fence to incorporate Sturt National Park in western New South Wales. This would give us some really good data to definitively state one way or another just what level of impact the dingo has on regulating [smaller] predators in the ecosystem.”
But he also doesn’t want to just stop with dingoes and devils. Some of the devil’s cousins need a helping hand, too. “I'd love to see many of our smaller quoll species (i.e. the eastern quoll above) also reintroduced onto peninsulas, some of our mainland islands and into feral-proof fenced areas. I'd love teams of researchers working to define optimum ecosystem types, and the density of foxes, cats, cane toads and other nasties that our devils and quolls can persist under, so we can continue to identify areas that could support future rewilding projects. I'd also love to see private facilities breeding Tiger Quolls, as part of a population augmentation (breed and release) strategy for the species. Then, I'd think we had succeeded in meeting our first five year plan. We are currently speaking with everyone we can to make progress on these concepts and we’re seeing real progress.”
Importantly, Rob says, the science to support rewilding is solid. However there are other factors seemingly holding back major projects at present. “We have an establishment,” Rob says, “and I'm talking everyone from politicians, through to land managers, who find it easier not to 'rock the boat'. They've got bills to pay and mortgages that probably keep many of them awake at night. We know what should be done. But we haven't managed to drag ourselves from our own financial inertia that keeps us tied to doing the same old things.”
Using the example of the Tasmanian devil, Rob suggests there are some more deep-seeded barriers to rewilding efforts; “I suspect [the opposition to devil rewilding] has more to do with a few individuals in Tasmania who somehow think that people only visit Tasmania to see devils. And as we know from Tasmanian visitor statistics, this is demonstrably incorrect.”
Early on in the conception of Rob’s idea, he took a proposal to local government aiming to restore 12 hectares of urban bushland in Sydney and filling it with rare native animals. “When I took the concept to the managing authority, I told them, "imagine offering Sydneysiders the opportunity to do a night walk through a patch of remnant bushland and see rock wallabies and bandicoots, perhaps even eastern quolls. We could share our wildlife with millions that will otherwise never see it. We can teach them why it's important". I got some really bemused looks. They just couldn't understand why I'd want to not just keep doing what we've always done with our urban reserves.”
This concept has already worked wonders in New Zealand, with the opening of Zealandia – a nature conservation reserve in the middle of Wellington that is home to some of the country’s rarest species. Even then, Rob was unable to convince them; “When I talked to them about Zealandia… they just couldn't get past the 'but Aussies don't really care about this stuff' phase.” This remains a major issue to restoration efforts across the country – getting Australians passionate and caring about conservation. As a result, Rewilding Australia are focusing much of their efforts on addressing this issue.
As a priority, Rob and his team are busy working on public education programs, including wildlife survey techniques and pest control methods. Basically, Rob is imploring the public to get rewilding on the national agenda; “Incorporate discussions into rewilding into everything you do. Try and ensure that our native carnivores get a look in. If you’re into tattoos, get a quoll tattoo. If you work in a customer service position, wear a quoll badge and tell people about quolls. Consider writing to your State’s environment minister to advocate rewilding projects. I’m sure everyone who cares about this can somehow find a way to spread the word! Then, you’re a part of it.”
On face value, that’s a hefty set of goals Rob and his team have lined up, and by no means are they going to achieve it all alone; “Getting Australian's involved is critical to the success of rewilding. In fact it is critical for all conservation ventures. If the public isn't engaged, then forget about it. The first step to getting involved is to join Rewilding Australia! It’s the best money you'll ever spend, and it will get you interacting with fellow rewilders.”
As Rob says, continuing with the status quo in Australia is going to end badly for our ecosystems; “We need to try new things, and build a level of resilience into our ecosystems that isn't there at the moment. It's not viable to think we can just continue to bait and shoot foxes for the next thousand years. We need better controls, where we can sit back and let things like viral controls or immunocontraceptives take on the heavy lifting. Hopefully our marsupial carnivores; the devils and quolls, could then mop up the rest of them.” Whilst Australia haven’t been “early adopters” of rewilding like our European cousins, Rob remains optimistic; “I do think that once we get going, we'll take this bull by the horns.”
Find out more about Rewilding Australia at their website; Facebook and Twitter pages.