Piccaninny Plains

Piccaninny Plains


"To a biologist, Cape York Peninsula is one of the most exciting places on Earth. It is the product of a unique evolutionary partnership between Australia and New Guinea, a place where Cuscus and Kangaroos live side-by-side."
- Professor Tim Flannery 

Piccaninny Plains lies in the heart of Cape York Peninsula, a region of global significance for conservation. Covering more than 170,000 hectares (420,000 acres), Piccaninny Plains is a property of stunning ecological diversity, decorated by a mosaic of rainforests, woodlands, wetlands and grasslands and iconic wildlife like the Palm Cockatoo.

Piccaninny Plains is jointly owned by AWC and The Tony & Lisette Lewis Foundation-WildlifeLink, with AWC responsible for delivering land management and science programs.

Cape York has been connected to New Guinea for much of the last 250,000 years. The repeated interchange of flora and fauna has bequeathed a rich biological legacy on Cape York Peninsula. Piccaninny Plains captures a superb representation of this evolutionary blend.  Its woodlands are distinctly Australian, dominated by antipodean species such as eucalypts, acacias and kangaroos. In contrast, the rainforests that thread their way across the property have a strong New Guinean flavour, supporting charismatic species like the Spotted Cuscus.

The juxtaposition of Australian and New Guinean wildlife explains why Piccaninny Plains supports such a high number of species (over 400 mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians plus 900 plants). In Australia, many of these animals are found only on Cape York Peninsula, like the Yellow-billed Kingfisher, Eclectus Parrot, Trumpet Manucode and Magnificent Riflebird.

AWC’s active land management at Piccaninny Plains, with a strong focus on fire management and feral animal control, is playing a critical role in providing a secure future for the wildlife of Cape York.

WL  TLLF Colour Centred [Converted]

Key vitals

166,522 hectares
Cape York Peninsula
Threatened plants:
Threatened wildlife:


The majority of Piccaninny Plains is covered by open woodlands and tropical grasslands which are home to well over a hundred species of birds including seed-eating parrots, finches, quails and doves, insect-eating flycatchers, swallows, whistlers, and wagtails, predatory raptors and owls and many more.  Mammals of these open woodlands include two (probably three) species of bandicoot, wallabies, possums, gliders, small carnivorous marsupials such as the Red-cheeked Dunnart, and native rodents such as the spectacular but elusive Black-footed Tree Rat. 

The integrity of habitats on Piccaninny Plains is emphasised by the survival of a suite of small-medium sized mammals that have suffered severe declines across northern Australia including the bandicoots, Black-footed Tree-rat and even the Brush-tailed Possum.

The mammal fauna also features some of the nation’s rarest bats including the Papuan Sheath-tailed Bat (rarely recorded in Australia) and an undescribed species (Cape York Free-tailed Bat) which has been recorded on around a dozen occasions.  

Reptiles also abound in this habitat with many species of pythons, venomous snakes, skinks, gekkos, dragon lizards and goannas.

The property also contains over 70 separate wetlands, which support resident and migratory waterbirds, fresh and saltwater crocodiles, aquatic snakes, over 20 species of frogs, freshwater crabs, 4 turtles and 30 species of fish.  The Spotted Whistling Duck was a highlight of recent biological surveys.

Gallery forests which flank the rivers and larger streams and the widely distributed vine forests are home to some of the sanctuary’s more striking wildlife including the shy nocturnal Spotted Cuscus, Striped Possum, Palm Cockatoo, Magnificent Riflebird, Eclectus Parrot, Amethystine Python and White-Lipped Tree Frog.  Distinctive among the myriad tree species of these forests are the towering Bamaga Satinash and the vibrantly red-pink flowering deciduous Native Crepe Mytle.

WATCH: Exploring Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary, renowned photographer Tim Laman and a Cornell Lab of Ornithology team encounter the beauty and diversity of the area’s wildlife as they search for the elusive Magnificent Riflebird, one of the most surprising and spectacular species that the sanctuary harbours.


Click below to view the list of wildlife species at Piccaninny Plains:
Mammals List  |  Birds List  |  Reptiles List  |  Amphibians List  |  Threatened List

Measures of success: Ecological Health

Adult male Magnificent Riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus alberti) on his display perch performing a display. Photo courtesy of Tim Laman
Adult male Magnificent Riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus alberti) on his display perch performing a display. Photo courtesy of Tim Laman

AWC is the only conservation organisation to measure in a robust scientific manner the ecological health of a network of sanctuaries.  At Piccaninny Plains, we undertake more than 3,000 live trap nights each year – plus 30 vegetation surveys and at least 300 camera trap nights annually - to measure a suite of ecological health indicators including:

  • The diversity and abundance of key faunal groups such as small-medium sized mammals and diurnal reptiles.
  • The significance of threats such as fire, feral herbivore density and weed occupancy.

Other measures include an assessment of wetland condition (to assess impacts of feral animals), and surveys of species associated with gallery forests and other rainforests on the sanctuary.

Our performance against these indicators provides rigorous scientific data which enables AWC and TLLF-WildlifeLink to track the ecological health of Piccaninny Plains

Field programs

AWC Field Programs at Piccaninny Plains include:

  • Delivering fire management across a complex landscape.
  • Feral herbivore control.
  • Extensive biological survey activity. 
  • Weed control.

This focus reflects the importance of fire management and feral herbivore control on Cape York.  

General description

Juvenile Planigale ingrami
Juvenile Planigale ingrami

Piccaninny Plains is situated in the centre of Cape York Peninsula, about 500 km north-west of Cairns and 100 km south-east of Weipa.  The sanctuary extends from the foothills of the McIlwraith Range to the western plains of the Gulf of Carpentaria.  Fifty-two kilometres of the Archer River and its towering gallery forest form the southern boundary.  From here, a richly interwoven fabric of wetlands, woodlands, tall grasslands and deciduous vine forests extend 60 kilometres to the north to meet the rainforests of the Wenlock River and the north eastern boundary.

Piccaninny Plains experiences an emphatically punctuated seasonality.  In summer, from about December, monsoonal rains (1500 mm annual average) swell the rivers and creeks into a continuous expanse of water that spreads over hundreds of square kilometres, effectively cutting off access.  From about May onward, the monsoon withdraws and the land becomes progressively drier with even the larger rivers receding to a steady trickle between a string of pools in wide sandy beds. 

Away from the rivers and creeks, deeply cracking clay soils underlie much of Piccaninny Plains and give rise to many of its distinctive habitats.  A regular pattern of shallow depressions called “gilgai” occupy large areas of these clays and by retaining water, provide important habitat for some months after the summer wet season. 

Ecosystems and plants

Providing a critical corridor that helps link the east and west coasts of Cape York Peninsula, Piccaninny Plains contains a remarkable diversity of ecosystems:

  • Magnificent gallery rainforest adorns the property. One rainforest type is found nowhere else in the world.
  • The property contains the largest and most intact tropical grasslands in the high rainfall belt of northern Australia. Elsewhere, these grasslands have been destroyed by intensive grazing and cultivation.
  • Two of northern Australia’s most important rivers meander across Piccaninny Plains: the Wenlock River, which boasts more fish species than any other river in Australia, and the mighty Archer River.
  • A magnificent network of pristine wetlands and the vast floodplain of the Archer River provide a haven for migratory waterbirds

Relatively coarse mapping by the Queensland Government has identified 64 regional ecosystems on Piccaninny Plains.  However AWC ecologists are currently conducting a detailed vegetation mapping project which will delineate ecosystems in much greater detail. 

Piccaninny Plains supports the majority (or in some cases the entirety) of several distinctive ecosystem types, including deciduous vine thickets on cracking clays and tall grasslands with Piliostigma.  The sanctuary is also home to the majority of some rare plant species including a species of Pterocarpus in gallery rainforests along Piccaninny Creek.

Almost 500 native plants have been formally identified from the sanctuary and it is likely that further survey work will increase the plant list to over 700 species.  

Staff at Piccaninny Plains