Australia's Jurassic Park
January 8, 2015
We announce our arrival at Scotia on the UHF radio. I fumble with the padlock and the towering gate swings open. Either side of the gate runs an equally tall fence as far as the eye can see.
This formidable frontier bears an uncanny resemblance to a military installation. The fence runs for 56 kilometres. It encloses 8000 hectares and yes, it’s designed to keep the hordes OUT. The hordes, in this case, are rabbits, goats, foxes and cats.
We are entering a massive 64,000-hectare property in far western New South Wales. Scotia is owned and run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). It is one of 23 properties dotted across the country. The AWC is in the business of saving animals from extinction.
Most Australians who care about native wildlife don’t need telling twice that this country holds the world record for animal extinctions (whoops! I just did…sorry). 29 native mammals have gone forever. Many more are teetering on the brink. AWC has put its finger in the dyke and is working to halt the decline.
Scotia is remote mallee country and it protects some of the rarest creatures on Earth. Before the advent of pastoralists this part of Australia was literally hopping with small marsupials. Today they have gone, even from the few surrounding national parks.
The mallee has been eaten out by sheep and goats. Australia’s small native animals have been left with no shelter, nesting material or means of avoiding predators. A new book released this year called Austral Ark: the State of Wildlife in Australia and New Zealand has revealed that there are a shocking 15 million feral cats in Australia. Each one takes out, on average, 5 native animals every night.
Inside Scotia’s exclusion fence we get a chance to see what the landscape might have looked like before sheep built the nation’s wealth. It’s the difference between night and day. The land is veritably popping with parachute-shaped bushes of all shapes and sizes. Dark lichen holds the soil in place. There are fallen logs, termite mounds and nature’s rubble all about.
During our stay we see Major Mitchell Cockatoos, a Western Blue-tongue Lizard, Malleefowl and Striated Grasswrens, all rare animals, but AWC’s work at Scotia is focused on supporting six endangered mammal species. Five of which once lived here but are now listed as extinct in NSW. Wild populations of the sixth, the Mala or Rufous Hare-wallaby, are now extinct throughout mainland Australia.
We venture out at dusk looking for the largest of these marsupials, the Bridled Nailtail Wallaby. Once common throughout semi-arid NSW, Queensland and Victoria, these animals had vanished by 1937. 36 years later a tiny population was rediscovered in central Queensland.
As night falls the wallabies emerge from cover to feed. Here on Scotia, protected from predators, they are flourishing. These ‘saved’ animals represent over 80% of the world’s population. Their tiny ‘nail’ is to be found at the end of their tail. Their ‘bridle’ is manifest in their beautiful markings.
We tread slowly and quietly through the dark. A smaller creature is zipping around. We stop, stand and watch. First one; then another. These are the delightful Boodies, alias Burrowing Bettongs. They are diggers, living in warrens and feeding on tubers, roots and fungi. Weighing little more than a kilogram, the incessant subterranean ventures of these lively social creatures quilt the sands of Scotia. They used to be common below the tropical zone all the way from the western slopes through central and western Australia. Today they live only on a few WA islands and on 3 AWC properties, including Scotia.
Another endangered bettong lives at Scotia. Solitary and shier, we ‘dip’ on the Woylie or Brush-tailed Bettong but scientific trapping and monitoring has revealed that about 400 animals are doing well here. Woylies make nests, not burrows, but they still dig for food, leaving depressions…or natural flowerpots: seeds and soil blow in; rain comes; seeds sprout. What a neat example of sustainable interdependence.
I have always associated Numbats with Western Australia but their original distribution would have stretched eastward across the southern half of the continent into northern Victoria and as far as Scotia. We were all surprised by how small they were: about the size of a squirrel.
Numbats eat termites and they are active during the day. We catch sight of several during our 2 days, one perched on top of a large mound. They are gorgeous creatures. Their stripey hindquarters camouflage them well and their brushy tail assists balance when tripping along fallen logs. There are only two naturally occurring populations left, both in WA. Of less than 1000 animals, 200 Numbats call Scotia home.
A fleeting glance of a white tail tip disappearing into the bush is my closest encounter with a Greater Bilby but that’s exciting enough for me. Despite looking like a bandicoot gone wrong, the long ears, soft grey fur and pointy nose bestow a frail beauty upon these nocturnal marsupials. They once occupied 70% of mainland Australia. Today their range has shrunk to about 20% of that and their distribution is patchy. At Scotia they are sustaining their population and doing well...thanks, as always, to THAT FENCE.
At the World Park Congress in Sydney this year conservationists from over 160 countries reaffirmed that the only effective way to save critically endangered animals from extinction is with large, managed, protected areas. The importance of Scotia’s fence cannot be emphasised enough but without constant monitored and vigilance by its dedicated staff, the creatures within the exclusion zone could be wiped out by cats or foxes in a flash.
AWC has pioneered a new model for conservation. Their focus is 100% on saving endangered species. Scotia is not a tourist destination. It’s a sanctuary. These guys have totally won my heart. Check ‘em out: http://www.australianwildlife.org