Looking into the large enclosure, I hold my breath, my eyes darting around for signs of movement. Next to me, my guide Karlijn points to a rattling bush. I barely have time to glance over there before a beautiful spotted creature darts out, scurrying onto a fallen branch, where it pauses, watching us. It’s perfectly posed, its pink nose twitching and its spots bright and white against its dark fur. I gasp, because, quite frankly, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. Karlijn explains next to me, as I stare at it, awestruck, that this gorgeous marsupial is the Tiger Quoll, a species thought to be extinct in the Otways until it was rediscovered in 2012. Since then, the Conservation Ecology Centre has used it as a focal point for their mission – a safer future for Tiger Quolls and other endangered wildlife in the Otways, created through research, understanding and working with our community to bring about informed and effective management actions.
The Conservation Ecology Centre is tucked alongside the Great Otway National Park, just outside of Apollo Bay. The Centre is dedicated to protecting and understanding native environments, particularly that of the Otways, through research and engagement. Some particularly interesting research projects are underway, such as the Otways Conservation Dogs and the Otway Threatened Species Research Network. For the founders of the CEC, Lizzie Corke and Shayne Neal, community engagement has always been a key part of their mission for conservation. All of their research projects have a component related to community engagement, with a hotline set up for the public to report sightings of native animals, and public events run to encourage planting of native trees in the area. One of the most exciting avenues for engagement is the Great Ocean Ecolodge: an ecoretreat run by Karlijn Sas and Stephan Ras, with all funds raised from the lodge going back into the research programs run by the CEC. More recently, the CEC has looked at another way to engage the community – through art.
Art and Ecology: Endangered Species of the Otways is an initiative started by the CEC to promote engagement through the creation of art. The CEC encouraged people to send in their art for a gallery exhibition, with the funds raised supporting the programs run by the CEC. The only criteria was that at least one of the 40 threatened or endangered species in the Otways had to be featured in the artwork. There was a great response, with both national and international artists contributing, and the community surrounding the Otways jumping at the chance to have their work displayed. As well as schools sending in artwork, a famous American print-maker and several highly regarded national artists such as ADi have submitted their work. Currently, it looks like a second venue will have to be sought out to accommodate all of the amazing artwork presented to the CEC - that’s an exciting example of community engagement done right.
Sitting down and chatting with Karlijn and Mark Le Pla, a research assistant for the Centre, I picked their brains about what made them come up with this particular method of engagement.
Karlijn explains the general premise for the inclusion of art in community engagement: “Most native animals are only seen from a distance, and art allows characteristic features of those animals to become more apparent.” In encouraging the local communities to create their own art, the communities become more aware of the key attributes of the native animals in their area.
“Maybe you draw a long-nosed potoroo and its nose is too long in the picture, but it means if you’re driving along and see a small hopping creature with a long nose, you’ve got a good idea of what it could be.”
As well as making communities more aware of the amazing diversity at their doorstep, it helps researchers create a more solid idea of the landscape. If people start to look for and identify rare species, they’re more likely to report their findings to the hotline or website provided by the CEC.
“We have limited resources to monitor the area,” Mark explains, which makes it difficult to create solid statistics of the prevalence of endangered animals; “So simple information helps a lot.” Researchers are often limited by time and funding, and conservation goals are going to be met much faster if scientists and communities work together to ensure a future for endangered species. Mark is adamant that the key to ensuring a long-term future for species such as the Tiger Quoll is communication with the communities. “Half the battle is engagement,” Mark tells me, “Getting people on side is the important part.”
This is definitely true. Victoria, and indeed Australia, is in a biodiversity crisis. Our native species are threatened by climate change, development, invasive species and disease. Dozens of Victorian species are threatened or endangered, and face regional and national extinction if we don’t try to ease the pressures they face. While we all know that action must be taken, what’s less clear is the best way to go about it. While scientific research into conservation will give us some answers, alone it may not be enough. Our native species are often fond of areas that people also like to frequent, and this means that conflicts are inevitable. In the face of so much adversity, apathy and disengagement from the public can be the final nails in the coffin for many of our species.
Luckily, there are organisations like the CEC doing their best to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Art and Ecology: Endangered Species of the Otways will be held from the 29th until the 30th of July at Art Inc. Gallery Apollo Bay, and the CEC gallery at Cape Otway from August 2016 - Janurary 2017. For more information, visit the Conservation Ecology Centre website.
Mary Shuttleworth is a Masters graduate from the University of Melbourne, where she pursued her interests in ecology and parasitology. She is interested in science communication, education and community engagement.
Find her on Twitter at @muttersworth.