Ghosts of Melbourne's Past

Melbourne’s haunted stories are the stuff of legend. Have you heard the tale of the old burial ground under the Queen Victoria Market? What about the number of hanged souls that haunt the Old Melbourne Gaol? Even Flinders Street Station is meant to be haunted, with a pale figure called ‘George’ often seen walking around Platform 10 looking for his old fishing spot on the Yarra that the station is now built on.

George, Flinders Street Station's resident ghost. Source: News Corp.

George, Flinders Street Station's resident ghost. Source: News Corp.

In Melbourne, there are ghosts everywhere.  But have you ever thought about another type of ghost whose mark remains across much of the City? For many of Victoria’s lost and nearly-forgotten species, the suburbs of Melbourne were or still are the last stronghold. But now, only their ghosts remain.

It is not known to many, but the Eastern quoll, now present in the wild only in Tasmania, was last recorded in Victoria in the leafy inner-east suburbs of Kew and Ivanhoe in the early 1960s. Some readers may even have memories of the eastern ‘native cats,’ as they were once known, It is thought that these urban-dwelling, small, carnivorous marsupials were able to escape the clutches of foxes, cats and disease for just that little bit longer compared to its cousins in the rolling hills of the rest of the state. Who knows? Perhaps Melbourne’s tunnels and alleys were quite safe for small mammals once-upon-a-time. As a current resident of the eastern suburbs, it is not too difficult to imagine the diminutive dasyurids chasing rats and mice around the banks of the Yarra River in the evening, as platypuses frolicked in the water.

One of the last eastern quolls found in Victoria. Source: The Argus / National Library of Australia.

One of the last eastern quolls found in Victoria. Source: The Argus / National Library of Australia.

Despite the widespread, negative effects of humanity on the environment, it is indeed quite perplexing how we can still offer salvation to a species’ final individuals. The bandicoot, a small ‘football-sized’ marsupial, is a perfect example of this. Much to an old farmer’s surprise, in the early ‘90s, the last known Victorian family of eastern barred bandicoots was found huddled inside old, beat-up cars at the Hamilton tip, west of Melbourne. This disheveled collection of bandicoots, in conjunction with individuals from Tasmania, are the direct ancestors of the insurance populations calling Werribee Zoo and Mount Rothwell Wildlife Sanctuary home today.  

An early-settler's staple. Source: National Library of Australia. 

An early-settler's staple.
Source: National Library of Australia. 

Similarly, some of the last strongholds for the southern brown bandicoot are the urban pockets of Melbourne’s growth areas near Cranbourne and Koo Wee Rup. It is not uncommon for residents in these areas to walk outside in the evening to find the little marsupials eating out of their dog’s food bowl. However, as urban areas are able to support fox populations at incredibly high densities, these bandicoots are now in a little bit of trouble. Funnily enough, this was not always the case. There was once a time where bandicoots were easier to catch than rabbits. So easy, in fact, that according to old newspapers they were a food staple, featuring in an array of stews and curries.

The eastern barred bandicoot is now extinct in the wild on mainland Australia. Photo: Zoos Victoria

The eastern barred bandicoot is now extinct in the wild on mainland Australia. Photo: Zoos Victoria

Obviously, the close proximity to Melbourne can be a blessing or a curse for vulnerable species. Urban areas often sustain higher fox and cat populations, as more humans often equal more food. However, perhaps more importantly, having charismatic species come into contact with a large spectrum of people can be a positive thing. One example is the grey-headed flying fox. Melbourne’s extensive Yarra Bend Park is home to one of the largest populations in Australia, thrusting the beautiful mammals into the spotlight for millions of people to appreciate. As a result, there are scores of dedicated people who survey the flying fox colony and, in extreme temperature events, conduct large-scale rescue operations.

Much of this effort transpires simply from Melbournians being aware of the flying fox’s presence. Would-be-ghosts turned flesh and blood before our eyes, it is hard not to stand in awe during their nightly convoy in search of food across our city. This kind of exposure to fauna could be part of the reason why some species have persisted longer in our urban environment, despite the challenges that go with it. By paying mind to their existence, we ensure the continuity of species, such as the majestic grey-headed flying fox, in the hope that more of our state’s unique wildlife does not become another ghost of Melbourne’s past. 

Rewilding Australia - Survey

There is growing discussion about the merits of rewilding lost species to their historical ranges across the world. Australia is a particular hotbed of discussion at present. There have been calls for predators such as dingoes and Tasmanian devils to be rewilded on the mainland, whilst a great number of small and medium-sized marsupials are returning to their homes in arid Australia with the help of large, predator-free enclosures.

As part of an increased effort to gauge the level of community support for rewilding in Australia, Rewilding Australia have launched a new survey and are calling upon everyone to submit their responses.

The questions will ask the public about their knowledge of rewilding, Australian native species and their interactions with native Australian animals. So, if you have a spare couple of minutes, please take the time to fill out this excellent survey and help inform new, evidence-based conservation! 

Check out Rewilding Australia at their website. 
Banner image by Marc Faucher

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.