Inside the fence: conservation on private land with Australian Wildlife Conservancy

As I make my way down to one of Melbourne’s many trendy cafes to meet Zac Lewis, a Development Executive at Australian Wildlife Conservancy, one thing strikes me more than anything else – this is not the typical stomping ground of an employee of Australia’s largest private conservation land holder.

The modus operandi of AWC is one of on-ground action, and it’s clearly working for them. The not-for-profit conservation group manages 3.15 million hectares of land in Australia and are nearly solely responsible for the continued persistence of a number of threatened species that call our Outback home.  

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A mulgara (Photo by J. Schofield, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

As we chat, Zac’s passion for private land conservation quickly becomes clear: “I come from a marine ecology background, so a lot of the work at AWC was very new to me, particularly the idea of private conservation. It really does have a place though, I think, as the AWC estate protects 86% of Australia’s terrestrial bird species and over 70% of our native [terrestrial] mammal species.” As Zac points out, despite the incredible network of national parks across Australia, places like AWC’s sanctuaries are the last stronghold for a number of threatened species. Zac elaborates: “So that’s really why AWC was formed , to try and drive a new model for conservation, one that’s focused on effective conservation.”

Part of that effective conservation is ensuring as many dollars as possible that AWC spends are contributing directly to on-ground conservation. In order to achieve this, AWC’s sanctuary managers are accountable for every dollar they spend, with every action rooted in driving an ecological return. As Zac describes, “science is a critical part of that accountability. Really, we want to measure what we do, to see if it’s working and if it’s not working how we can adapt so it does.” Obvious things, really, but difficult on a shoestring budget.  

Despite the absolutely pivotal role AWC play in protecting and restoring Australia’s biodiversity, they have some challenges of their own.

I talk to a lot of people and, despite us being the largest private landowner for conservation in Australia, some people have never heard of us.

Part of this is a factor of the Conservancy’s business model. As Zac explains; “we spend 85% of our funding in the field and… [comparably] very little on marketing.” As a result, word-of-mouth is their major tool for garnering support and awareness for their work across the country. This can be challenging for AWC, given the vast majority of their fundraising is spent on direct conservation action.

Like many other charities, AWC are exploring more innovative sources of fundraising, which is proving to be successful. One particularly successful event, says Zac, was an attempt to bring science and art together called ‘Five artists, Seven days’: “[We sent] five prominent Australian artists up to our Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary in the Gulf of Carpentaria. They were there seven days for some inspiration and did a lot of painting and sculpting. We held an exhibition in Sydney in collaboration with the artists and their galleries and a proportion of the proceeds was donated to AWC.”

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

The Mala (Photo taken by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Zac reiterates throughout our conversation that AWC prides itself on measuring everything it does. It’s their point of difference and, according to Zac, part of what makes them so successful. “We’re in a resource-limited industry,” Zac explains, so they need to keep focused on ensuring their money is being used to deliver outcomes. That is, being able to show people that their support is making a difference. Zac reiterates that “the onus really is on us to be able to show what’s being achieved and demonstrate we are making a tangible, measurable difference to our endangered wildlife. For example AWC conducts annual biodiversity surveys across our sanctuaries to monitor the populations of many endangered species and ensure the graphs are heading in the right direction”.

Part of showing the work achieved by AWC, Zac says, is framing conservation challenges and progress in an effective manner: “People talk about conservation as, kind of, this problem that’s bigger than Ben Hur. For AWC, we focus our work on the key threats that are driving the extinction of many endangered native animals in Australia. Feral cats, for example, kill tens of millions of native animals per day across Australia. Our work focuses on integrating the management of these threats to our native wildlife like feral cats, wildfire and invasive weeds so that we can have the greatest impact.” Otherwise, according to Zac, you’re taking a scattergun approach to management.

Towards the end of our lunch, the conversation steers toward the future direction of AWC. Zac’s eyes light up noticeably as he excitedly describes some of the organization’s next steps, including the expansion of an existing sanctuary and an exciting partnership with the NSW Government. 

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary (Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

A numbat from Yookamurra Sanctuary
(Photo by W. Lawler, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Some may be disappointed to hear that Victoria doesn’t feature in AWC’s plans in the near future, but it’s for very good reason: “I think a lot of [donors and supporters] want to see a presence in Victoria. But it’s very hard. There’s two reasons why we’re not here [in Victoria]; the first is that land’s very expensive. We want to make landscape-scale changes and we can buy vast tracks of land in northern Australia for the price of a small property in Victoria. So that sense of scale [is important]. But also, we choose the land we acquire very carefully based on its biodiversity values so that we can get the best ecological return from our investment. A lot of the key conservation areas in Victoria are found on public land and are not up for sale.”

In those situations, partnerships with governments, like NSW, can be more effective. AWC have formed an historic partnership with the NSW Government to deliver land management and science in two NSW National Parks; the Mallee Cliffs National Park and Pilliga National Park. Despite the finer details still being settled on, AWC is planning to establish large feral predator-free areas in each park and reintroduce 10 of Australia’s most endangered native mammal species back in to these parks.

For the first time, regionally extinct animals that have not been seen for over 100 years will be returned to NSW National Parks.

The new arrangement between the NSW government and AWC is incredibly exciting. However, Zac thinks AWC’s other major focus for the short-term is just as impressive: “The big project for us over the next three years is the Newhaven project… It’s sort of a game-changing project”

AWC’s plans are simple – put in an enormous fenced exclosure at their Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Central Australia. This might sound simple, given AWC’s previous success with feral predator-free areas but, in reality, it’s a mammoth task: “At the moment, our largest feral predator-free area on the mainland is Scotia at 8000 Ha. We want to put in a 65, 000 Ha feral cat-free area at Newhaven, which is really exciting.”

Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, which was previously owned by Birdlife Australia, is an area of global biodiversity significance. “Many species that originally occurred there have been lost; much of central Australia is a marsupial ghost town” says Zac. So once the fence is up and the foxes, cats and rabbits are removed, the next step is perhaps the most exciting: “We’re restoring nine endangered native mammal species to their homeland in central Australia at Newhaven, including the Greater Bilby, the Golden Bandicoot and the beautiful Mala, of which the mainland sub-species is extinct in the wild on mainland Australia.”

Apart from the prospect of reintroducing a number of locally extinct species, the Newhaven expansion is remarkable for other reasons, too. “It’s really taking the model we use now around feral cat eradication to a scale never before seen” Zac explains. Upon completion, Newhaven will be the largest feral predator-free area on mainland Australia. But, as Zac points out, this obviously doesn’t come cheap. “The first stage of the project will be to establish an 8-15,000 Ha fenced feral-free area, which will cost $3 million to put in place. The federal government has recognized the global significance of this project and have already committed $750, 000 to that first stage, so it is up to us now to raise the remaining funds.”

Zac acknowledges the enormity of the task ahead, but is optimistic given AWC’s success in Australia so far in conserving our flora and fauna.

We know we can do it, we just need to get the word out.

Cover image taken by W. Lawler at Newhaven Sanctuary, used with permission from Australian Wildlife Conservancy


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Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter at: @billy_geary