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

The Art of Conservation: Endangered Species of the Otways

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. 

A tiger quoll. (Image: Wikimedia Commons: Michael J Fromholtz)

A tiger quoll. (Image: Wikimedia Commons: Michael J Fromholtz)

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.

Image: Mary Shuttleworth

Image: Mary Shuttleworth

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

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.

Can we help endangered species help themselves?

Humans are having an immense impact upon the natural world. Australia has lost 30 mammal, 24 bird and 78 frog species since European settlement, and with many more listed as endangered or critically endangered, these numbers are set to climb.

Conservationists are (of course) very keen to stop this from happening. But many of the threats impacting our native species - diseases, habitat loss and invasive species - are almost impossible to reverse or eradicate. Mitigating these threats can often be costly, time-consuming, and ultimately futile.

I won’t deny it - the situation is pretty dire. But there is still hope. It’s a hope that comes not from humans, but from the threatened species themselves.

It’s something we don’t hear about very often, but endangered species are not always completely helpless. In some circumstances, we are seeing a small number of individuals surviving despite the widespread decline of the majority of their species.

Unconfirmed reports suggest a small number of Tasmanian devils on the north-western tip of Tasmania appear to show some resistance to Devil Facial Tumour Disease, which has wiped out around 95% of wild devils. At the other end of our continent, populations of northern quolls, which have experienced massive declines thanks to their habit of eating the poisonous cane toad, have since recovered in Queensland and now live alongside toads.

These pockets of resistance possibly occur because a small number of individuals possess a trait that makes them resistant to the threat. Genetic variation is something that occurs in every species on the planet. This is when slight differences in each individual’s genetic makeup leads to an assortment of traits in a single population.

As a threat spreads through a landscape, some individuals may be more genetically equipped to deal with it. Any individual that survives the threat because they possess a certain gene or set of genes (e.g. they are genetically resistant to a disease) goes on to reproduce and pass that superior set of genes on to their offspring. As they hurtle towards extinction, endangered species are under intense selection, so any gene that promotes survival would spread quickly through a population.

So if selection is such a driving force, and there are animals out there that can survive certain threats, why are we seeing such widespread declines and extinctions?

Well firstly, there is a lot of complexity in all of these systems: species are often subjected to multiple threatening processes at once, and the interactions between these lead to complex outcomes that are difficult to predict.

Another issue is that these resistant traits often do not occur frequently enough to spread through a population, or only occur in isolated sections of the landscape. For instance, although Queensland populations of the northern quoll may have evolved to live alongside toads, this is not a trait shared by Northern Territory populations on the toad invasion front, making the quolls who are about to encounter toads for the first time extremely vulnerable to local extinction.

In a recent paper published in Conservation Biology, my research team has suggested a management technique that could capitalise on this natural adaptation to promote the resistance of an entire population to a threatening process, and hopefully help species avoid extinction.

This technique, called targeted gene flow, involves moving pre-adapted genes to areas in the landscape where they would be the most beneficial. The small number of resistant genes would be artificially promoted through captive breeding and translocations to improve the resilience of the population to a certain threat.

This idea is already being applied to improve species’ adaption to climate change. By translocating individuals adapted to relatively warmer environments to cold-adapted populations, conservationists can increase the proportion of genes that match the future climate of the warming site. Already, it has been used to conserve conifers in the USA, with drought resistant strains being moved to areas that are being affected by global warming.

Yet, targeted gene flow could have much broader applications. Variation in adaption is not something that occurs only in response to climate change; there are a broad range of populations and threatening processes to which it could be applied. Adaptive genes may already be present in the population or may rapidly evolve in response to a threat.

The idea is similar to that of genetic rescue, which involves bringing animals into a small, inbred population to bolster the variety and number of genes in the gene pool. Genetic rescue has recently helped strengthen the isolated population of mountain pygmy possums on Mount Buller. Males from neighbouring Mount Hotham were introduced to the Mount Buller population and successfully bred with females to produce hybrid offspring, which were not only heavier (so more likely to survive winter) than their purebred counterparts, but also carried much needed genetic variation to help the population endure. With targeted gene flow, conservationists would be looking to encourage a certain trait that helps a species deal with a threat, rather than just promoting general genetic variation.

Of course, translocating individuals across habitats is a tricky business and is not something we suggest entering into lightly. However, in certain instances and with very careful planning and execution, targeted gene flow could allow us to help endangered species help themselves. By promoting adaption to many of the unavoidable and unstoppable threats in Australia, we could hopefully reduce the number of native species on Australia’s list of extinctions.

For my PhD, I am looking at the feasibility of using targeted gene flow to conserve northern quoll populations. If there are individuals that have evolved to be “toad-smart” - a trait that is heritable - we could introduce these individuals ahead of the invasion front and reduce the chance of extinction in populations of quolls in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. But first, I need to examine the toad-smart behaviour to work out how it is passed between individuals – is it genetic or learnt?  So far, it seems that this behaviour may be more complex than I originally imagined, but if I can understand how it is sustained in a population, it will be the first step towards harnessing it for conservation. Watch this space!

Ella Kelly

Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.

You can find her on Twitter at: @elkelly1210