Predators

Predation, Small Mammals and Fire - On Video!

There are many processes and interactions that occur in every ecosystem across the world, all with a range of effects and impacts associated with them. Two of these are predation and fire, both of which can have a profound influence on communities of plants and animals. Until recently, the two have rarely been considered in tandem - something which is incredibly important, especially in Australian ecosystems. 

A few weeks ago, I ventured out to the sixth Biodiversity Across the Borders conference at Federation University, Ballarat to present some of my honours research on predators, fire and small mammals in Victoria's remote Big Desert region. You might remember some of this work being written about on Wild Melbourne last year, which can be viewed over three instalments: part one, part two and part three.  

My talk (along with many others) was kindly storified by Kylie Soanes, which you can check out for a great snapshot of the day's take-home messages. Or, alternatively, watch the full video of my presentation below.

       

Predators, Films and Science: A Conversation with Dan Hunter

Nearly every ecologist across the world has, at one stage or another, had a moment in the field where they had the thought – “I wish I’d filmed that!” Or perhaps had David Attenborough’s voice going through their head whilst observing a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.

For University of New South Wales ecologist and film-maker Daniel Hunter, science and film go hand in hand. He explains: “The interesting thing about science journal papers is that they’re basically a good film script in disguise. They have an introduction (or a hook), a body and a conclusion (or ending).” As Dan reiterates, the marriage of the two disciplines is perhaps even more true for ecologists: “We often work in places that people dream about as holiday destinations, carrying out fieldwork with beautiful critters and plants at the most spectacular times of the day. Why not take a camera and record some of this, record the sounds, record the animals, capture the scenes, the moments and share them?”

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

Ecologist and natural history filmmaker Dan Hunter. Photo: Ed Sloane

With what Dan refers to as a “growing disconnect between scientists and the public,” starting his PhD was the perfect opportunity to go about rectifying the problem. According to Dan, it’s a serious problem. He expands: “The ‘public’ make policy decisions and are the ones affected by research outcomes so we, as scientists, have an obligation to ensure that our research is communicated clearly and effectively… using multiple communication methods.”

Dan’s research focuses on the importance of apex predators, such as the dingo, in structuring ecosystems through the reduction in numbers of herbivores and smaller predators. Whilst Dan’s findings mirror what is being observed elsewhere in Australia, they are no less important. In fact, Dan’s observations from his study area in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area were the catalyst for his new film. It turns out that “the mere presence of dingoes benefits small and medium mammal abundance and vegetation complexity so strongly that I just had to share these findings as far and wide as possible,” he says.

Naturally, given Dan’s background as a natural history filmmaker, a documentary was the best way to do this. “Essentially it is a film about the role of predators, the decline of Australia’s mammals and rewilding,” says Dan. “The story explores the role of dingoes in forests…. However, dingoes are persecuted because of the threat they pose to livestock and, as a consequence, our native mammal species are losing out in areas where dingoes have become functionally extinct.”

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Dan Hunter says predators are vital for maintaining balance in ecosystems such as this. Photo: Dan Hunter

Given the film is based on his research, the story fell together quite neatly: “The process of piecing it all together was very organic because it is about my research which is something I know intimately well.” However, there were some challenges: “The tricky part for me, was making sure that it did not detract from the key message and was a sound piece of science communication. That meant not using too much jargon, keeping a good rhythm and using cinematography to maintain the attention of viewers.”

Throughout the filming process, Dan was continually reminded of the dire state of Australia’s mammals and the ineffectiveness of a business-as-usual approach to threatened species conservation. “Our current management (mainly, poison baiting with 1080) is short-sighted, unsustainable and costly,” says Dan. “We need to consider restoring dingoes to functional densities to tackle foxes and cats and where this is untenable for farmers we need to explore the option of bringing in devils as a surrogate at the very least.”

For many ecologists, reintroducing the Tasmanian Devil to mainland Australia (where it existed approximately 500 years ago) is not a new idea. “My supervisor and I discussed the idea of modelling Tasmanian Devil reintroduction to help mitigate some of the cat and fox carnage in forests,” he explains. “Although I don’t discuss the modelling in the film, I do go to Tasmania and interview some devil experts to get their thoughts on bringing devils back to the mainland.”

So, how can ecologists and other scientifically minded people convince policy makers to take a leap and return devils to the mainland? “Conduct quality research, disseminate the findings in a clear and effective way and begin the conversation,” says Dan. But unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that: “Farmers will want to know what the potential damage to their stock will be, conservationists will want to know if devils are going to do more bad then good, Tasmanians are going to want to be assured they will still have a tourism industry if they share their State emblem with Victoria and New South Wales. These are all legitimate concerns that scientists and others will need to address before any reintroduction takes place.”

However, Dan thinks we’re well on the way, explaining that “the first step is the hardest and I think we’re pretty close.”

Battle in the Bush premieres in Sydney in mid-June, with screenings in Melbourne and Geelong to follow soon after. Dan is on the lookout for venues to host screenings, so readers should get in touch if they can help. The film will also be available for purchase very soon.

All information related to Battle in the Bush can be found HERE and to read Wild Melbourne's review of the film, head HERE

Rewilding Australia - One Species At A Time

Rewilding Australia

Rewilding Australia

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.”

The Tasmanian devil (photo: Greg Wood)

The Tasmanian devil (photo: Greg Wood)

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.”

The dingo

The dingo

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.”

The gorgeous eastern quoll (Image: Mark Faucher)

The gorgeous eastern quoll (Image: Mark Faucher)

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. 

George Monbiot: The enchantment of rewilding

In the opening few chapters of British journalist George Monbiot’s Feral, a somewhat foreign, yet completely sensible view of the state of humanity is offered – we are ecologically bored. We’re disconnected from nature, he argues, and it’s hurting both us and our environment. What we need is a new, positive form of environmentalism.

Bring back the wonder of existence.

As such, Feral is a foray into, what Monbiot believes, is the best way to reconnect the populous with nature. That solution is both amazingly simple and daring – bring nature to us. Allow nature to wrench back control from humanity to progress and change on its own in a self-regulating fashion. By giving the power of decision to nature, we ensure that nature gets to choose the right balance, rather than humans artificially producing what we think is ‘right.’

Feral also acts as somewhat of a memoir for Monbiot, detailing the times at which he has felt closest to our biosphere. In his search for the exhilaration not felt since he explored rainforest when younger, Monbiot brings us on his journey to explore the British coast and the remnant Welsh forests. It’s on this journey that Monbiot details his growing realisation that modern day environments need reinvigorating, with the aim of restoring them to their former glory.

Enter rewilding...  

Rewilding, according to Monbiot, can have a number of definitions. First, it is the restoration of environments to their naturally occurring state. Secondly, it is returning the thrill of nature to human existence – something that is gravely missing in the technological age. Most importantly rewilding puts the natural world into focus on a number of levels.

As Monbiot stated in his recent Ted Talk, “Rewilding offers us hope. In motivating people to love and defend the natural world, an ounce of hope is worth a tonne of despair.” This point rings true on a number of levels, as a lack of knowledge or education is currently seen as the cause of human apathy towards the environment.

George Monbiot helps us visualise the concept of rewilding, describing the amazing things our world is capable of doing (if we let it.) (Video: TED)

Furthermore, there is genuine empirical evidence that rewilding is already occurring across much of mainland Europe. Wolves are returning to places in which they’ve not been seen for decades, and it’s having amazing affects on community assemblages, both in Europe and America. It’s here that the greatest scope for ecosystem restoration lies, with the reintroduction of top predators. The wide-ranging effects of large carnivores are well documented in a number of systems. As such, the case for returning wolves and lynx to their former ranges has strong scientific backing.

While Monbiot’s idealised vision of Wales teeming with everything from wolves to lynx and bison is ambitious, there’s a part of the brain that longs for it. By flirting with the idea of having nature on your doorstep (something that Monbiot attempted in his move to Wales), the reader is already imagining exactly that. It is a testament to just how well Feral is written.

Feral is a success not just because of its combination of well-delivered facts and personal experiences, but also in the way it ignites desire in the reader to reconnect with nature and become wild. In only a few hundred pages, Monbiot gives the reader a glimmer of what the term ‘wild’ really means, both from an anthropogenic and an ecological viewpoint.

Yes, Feral does think big in terms of its message. However, the world needs thinking such as this right now. Hope for the preservation of nature needs to be instilled, and the public need to be engaged with nature on a more personal level. Importantly, Feral does both incredibly well.

This positive outlook that Monbiot has taken is perhaps best surmised with one line that offers both hope and wonder: that just maybe "our Silent Spring could be replaced by a raucous summer."