conservation volunteers australia

Oasis in the Desert

Imagine, just for a second, that you were transported to far-Western Victoria as it was 300 years ago. The sweeping plains and occasional dunes continue on as far as the eye can see, with not a scrap of barbed wire in sight. There are enormous malleefowl mounds everywhere; on every sand dune the scurried traces of bilbies, quolls and bettongs abound. The many stemmed eucalypts explode from the sand in slow motion, hinting at a fire-scorched past.

These days, the Little Desert tells a different story: a story of rabbits, weeds and European farming. But what if that picture first painted could be recreated? What if the Little Desert, or at least sections of it, could hark back to a wilder time?

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert.  Image: Emma Walsh

Medium-sized mammals like this rufous bettong (left) and brush-tailed bettong (right) once roamed the Little Desert. Image: Emma Walsh

Conservation Volunteers Australia, in partnership with FAUNA Research Alliance and the Little Desert Nature Lodge, are hoping to do just that using rewilding, an emerging approach to conservation. Essentially, rewilding means reintroducing species where they once were and generally allowing nature to take its course. Putting the wild back into nature, as it were. The practice has grown to prominence recently in the UK, with the proposed reintroduction of lynx in Scotland. In Australia, a rewilded Little Desert may give people the opportunity to experience a Victorian landscape as it once was.

For Ben Holmes, Rewilding Manager at Conservation Volunteers, the opportunity to help rewild the Little Desert is an exciting prospect, especially given the rapid decline of Australia’s biodiversity: “If we can prove that rewilding works and implement it at landscape scales, we might be able to conserve some of Australia’s threatened species, and that’s why I’m on board.”

As Ben explains the Little Desert project in depth, it’s difficult to stop the mind from wandering, marveling at the possibilities that come with rewilding and what it means for conservation: “It’s time to try something new, and the evidence from around the world is starting to show that rewilding might be a key piece of the conservation puzzle.” Indeed, if a conservation program as ambitious as this is successful, it could inspire many others across Australia.

The effects of rewilding aren’t just about conservation, though; they can also permeate throughout society. Ben and Conservation Volunteers also want to use the project to rewild people: “Giving volunteers and the community an opportunity to get involved in a meaningful conservation project and connect with nature and Australia’s unique wildlife is integral to our vision.” Studies from many corners of the world show the benefits of connecting humans with nature.

Conservation projects can often take a little while to get going and while this project is two years in the making so far, Ben and Conservation Volunteers are keen to get things moving quickly: “Our aim is to run our monitoring program this spring and summer to give us an understanding of what species are here and how the ecosystem is functioning.”

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments.  Image: Billy Geary

The Little Desert Nature Lodge's predator-proof fences will keep the rewilded species safe from invasive predators, as well as provide a controlled environment in which to conduct the management experiments. Image: Billy Geary

After reaching this milestone – a crucial step in science – it’s time for the main event: “In about 12 months time, we will start reintroducing animals and monitoring their impact on the ecosystem.” The proposed species read like a mammal-watcher’s wishlist, with the western quoll, numbat, brush-tailed bettong and western barred bandicoot all expected to be returning home in the imminent future. All of these species are incredibly charismatic, but also in dire need of conservation support.

To reach this point, however, Conservation Volunteers and FAUNA Research Alliance are already years into the project, says Ben. Part of this is ensuring that this ambitious project is backed by the best science available: “FAUNA Research Alliance is helping us to develop a scientifically rigorous monitoring and research program to assess the impacts of rewilding. The baseline-monitoring program is being developed so that it can be undertaken by the community. For more complex monitoring and research, the academics from FAUNA will help us to find students to deliver the work.”

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return.  Image: Billy Geary

Very soon, species that haven't been in this landscape for 300 years will return. Image: Billy Geary

Despite the continued and seemingly unstoppable rise of rewilding in scientific literature as a viable addition to a land manager’s toolkit, it does have its critics. Some suggest that rewilding has too many unknowns associated with it, or that some proposals are unrealistic in their goals. However, Ben reiterates that the team is taking an evidence-based approach: “FAUNA Research Alliance, with their wealth of scientific knowledge and management expertise has helped design the scientific program to evaluate rewilding as a conservation tool. This, in combination with Conservation Volunteers’ community engagement skill and infrastructure, means the experiment can happen with minimal risk. Together we can make this happen.”

It’s that theme of togetherness that is fundamental to the ethos of Conservation Volunteers and those associated with the Little Desert project. As Ben explains, the community and volunteers will be involved every step of the way: “We will be developing a range of volunteer opportunities for the local and wider community. No matter where you’re from, you can come and stay with us at the Little Desert Nature Lodge, get your hands dirty and help rewild the desert.”

Given the precarious state of many species in Australia, and indeed Victoria, giving them a chance at a new (but very old) home can only be a good thing. Besides, what Victorian wouldn’t want to see bilbies, western quolls and numbats darting through the Little Desert as they once did, many years ago?

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

Volunteering for Conservation: Happy Givers are Happy Livers

Ever felt overwhelmed by the enormity of world issues? Maybe you’ve thought, “What difference can a single person make in the scheme of things?” As a volunteer myself, I've certainly asked this question before; however, it’s time to stop feeling disheartened because volunteers are making significant inroads across Australia.

Volunteers - conservation's heartbeat?

People volunteer for a number of reasons, whether it is networking, a hobby or simply wanting to give back to the community. One thing they all have in common though is that they tend to be happier.

This year, National Volunteer Week 2016 continues to celebrate the theme ‘Give Happy, Live Happy’ that explores the research that shows volunteers live happier and healthier lives. Established in 1989, the aim of the week is to celebrate the tireless efforts of volunteers all around Australia. Every year, numbers of volunteers are growing, with over 6.4 million Australians volunteering annually, contributing anywhere up to 700 million hours of unpaid work. This equates to a total value of $290 billion within the Australian economy, which is a much larger contribution to GDP than tourism, mining or agriculture according to a report published by Dr O’Dwyer from the University of Adelaide. Feeling significant and valued now? Indeed, your tireless hours are making a huge difference! To further demonstrate this, here are five volunteer-based organisations making waves in the environmental world.

Five amazing volunteer-led conservation programs

1) A Second Chance for the Helmeted Honeyeater

Few may know that the helmeted honeyeater is Victoria’s bird emblem, yet the species has been threatened with extinction since the 1960’s. A voluntary group called Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater was formed in 1989 when the population reached critically low levels of only 50 individuals. This was due to habitat destruction and exclusion by the invasive bell miner.  The creation of Yellingbo Nature Conservation Reserve by the government combined with the work of hundreds of volunteers has brought the species back from the brink of extinction. Currently, the population now stands at 192 individuals and is home to more fledglings than ever before.

For more information on the Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater, head to their website. 

2) Trees, Trees and More Trees!

If you have ever been in a plane and looked down below, there is a good chance you would see acres of bare farmland. TreeProject is a volunteer-based, non-profit organisation established 25 years ago, and works with local communities by planting indigenous species to restore degraded land. They also have a significant role in sowing seeds for a sustainable future. Since their establishment, over 2.5 million trees have been planted across Victoria with the number growing every year! This has lead to large areas of once degraded and deforested land being restored, which in turn has vastly improved the health of both urban and rural ecosystems.

To find out more about TreeProject, head to their website.

3) ‘Inspiring change by connecting people with nature.’

This is the vision of Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA). Their effectiveness as an organisation has been impressive. Last year, more than 7,000 CVA volunteers helped plant 210,000 trees, performed 2,860 environmental surveys, and cleaned up 156 tonnes of rubbish. Not a bad effort, right? Some of their projects include land rehabilitation, improving coastal wetland resilience, as well as conserving and protecting Australia’s diverse fauna and flora.

For more information, head to Conservation Volunteers Australia's website

4) Bandicoot Fever!

Bandicoots are the charming native marsupials that were originally found in grasslands throughout South Eastern Victoria and Tasmania. Introduced predators such as cats and foxes, however, have lead to one species, the eastern barred bandicoot, becoming extinct on mainland Australia. A state-based captive breeding program has since been initiated by the government alongside several voluntary environmental organisations. The future has turned around for this once nearly extinct marsupial, the latest news being the release of 20 eastern barred bandicoots back into a predator-free sanctuary. Volunteers have been the key to establishing predator-proof fences, as well as restoring native vegetation at breeding centres, including La Trobe Wildlife Sanctuary in Bundoora, Mt Rothwell near Geelong, and Hamilton Parklands. It’s hoped the population will surpass 2,500 individuals by 2020.


5) A Watch on the Water

Like any other environment, marine habitats are no different and need to be equally cared for. ReefWatch is a community-led volunteer program that coordinates a number of marine conservation programs, including 'Feral or in Peril' that looks at which species are native and which ones are invasive. Another program run by ReefWatch and their dedicated volunteers is the Great Victorian Fish Count, which provides vital data concerning the health of fish populations in Victoria.

When it comes to volunteering, there is an organisation for all. You are never too old or too young to start! So get out there and get amongst our wonderful planet.

If you're looking for a local organisation to volunteer with, check out this list for an array of opportunities to get out into nature. 

Cover image by Billy Geary.