Wildlife Matters

AWC’s commitment to worldclass conservation science

05 May. 2021
R Parker/AWC

By Dr John Kanowski, Chief Science Officer and Dr Liana Joseph, National Science Manager

If conservation was simply a matter of locking up properties at risk of being cleared and implementing land management, then AWC could get by with a much smaller science program. As it is, we employ 60 professional ecologists – about 40 per cent of our staff. This represents a heavy investment in science by AWC, particularly when compared with other organisations in the conservation sector, who typically aim to spend 5-15 per cent of budgets on monitoring and evaluation. So, what is the rationale behind AWC’s significant investment in science?

AWC has been founded on a model of evidence-based conservation. Fundamentally, many of the key threats facing Australia’s wildlife – wildfire, feral animals and weeds – are pervasive in the landscape and require active management. AWC’s science program aims to provide our land managers with robust information on the species we protect, the threats they face, and the efficacy of programs aimed at mitigating those threats. As such, the science program is central to our mission of delivering effective conservation.

In this article, we provide an overview of AWC’s science program, some of our key achievements, and the challenges we are attempting to address in coming years.

History of AWC’s science program

In AWC’s infancy, the science program involved a small number of key figures providing advice to AWC’s founder, Martin Copley. These included Australian palaeontologist, mammologist and natural historian, Tim Flannery, and scientist and then Director of Nature Conservation in the WA Department of Conservation and Land Management, Dr Barry Wilson. As the organisation developed, a cadre of professional ecologists was appointed to conduct biological surveys and manage reintroductions on AWC’s growing estate.

Phoebe Dickins Taken By Raquel Parker R Parker/AWC
Camera traps are a vital tool for monitoring native species and their threats. In 2020, AWC ecologists conducted over 255,000 trap nights, including 180,000 camera trap nights across the country. Here, Phoebe Dickens sets a camera trap at Mt Gibson.

A major leap forward took place when AWC acquired Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Kimberley, and staffed it with a team of ecologists and managers to set up the property from scratch. The vision of science informed management developed by the Kimberley team had a formative influence on AWC, particularly as the national science program was run from Mornington for many years by Dr Sarah Legge. During this time, AWC ecologists established a series of research and monitoring programs, in conjunction with land managers, with a particular focus on understanding the impacts of fire, feral cats and herbivores on wildlife and how to manage them. This work resulted in important discoveries, such as that wildfire and cattle grazing facilitate predation by feral cats. These findings have influenced conservation practice across northern Australia.

Structure of the science program

As AWC expanded, a regional structure was put in place to manage the science program. Each regional team comprises a number of Field and Wildlife Ecologists who report to experienced Regional Ecologists, who in turn report to AWC’s Chief Science Officer. The strength of this structure is that the ecologists in each region are able to develop a detailed knowledge of the properties in their remit, as well as build strong relationships with AWC’s conservation land managers. This results in robust ‘bottom-up’ advice on conservation imperatives in each region.

At the same time, there has been an increasing need for ‘top-down’ coordination of the science program, for provision of high-level advice to AWC’s executive and board, and for specialist skills, leading to the formation of AWC’s National Science Team. This team, run by the National Science Manager, is responsible for:

  • developing strategies for managing fire, weeds and feral animals;
  • coordinating our reintroduction and genetics programs;
  • developing our acquisition policy;
  • scoping a climate change strategy; and
  • providing botanical and spatial analysis support across AWC.

This work is crucial to ensuring AWC’s science program operates effectively and with greatest impact.

Key focus areas of AWC’s science program

AWC’s science program has continued to develop over time, to best meet AWC’s mission. The program currently comprises four major strands: 1) monitoring, 2) research, 3) conservation land management, and 4) reintroductions.

1. AWC’s Ecohealth monitoring program is designed to provide information on the status and trends of species, habitats and threats across AWC’s estate. For new properties or partnerships, the program involves an inventory of the species and habitats present. For ‘mature’ sites, AWC ecologists monitor a wide range of indicators of ecological health, with a focus on threatened species and major threats. Highlighting the scale of effort involved, each year, AWC ecologists undertake more than 180,000 trap nights across the country (in 2020, ecologists undertook 257,904 trap nights) – making this by far the most extensive field monitoring program in Australia.

Isabel Connell sets a cage trap S Cameron/AWC
AWC field ecologists conduct Ecohealth monitoring surveys tracking trends in native species. Here, Isabel Connell sets a cage trap.

2. AWC’s Research program is directed at better understanding matters relevant to improving our conservation practice, such as the ecology of threatened species and how to manage threats more effectively. Research questions are either embedded in our monitoring programs or targeted at particular questions. A long-standing focus of AWC’s research has been the ecology and management of feral cats, as cats are a primary driver of mammal extinctions in Australia.

Together, AWC’s Ecohealth and research programs enable us to measure the impact of our actions on the ground and therefore the ecological ‘return’ on our investment.

3. AWC’s Conservation Land Management Strategy program draws on available evidence and the expertise of our field team to guide AWC’s investment in fire, feral animal and weed control. For example, our weed control strategies prioritise weeds for treatment based on their environmental impact and feasibility of management.

4. AWC’s Reintroduction program aims to restore mammal assemblages and associated ecological processes at sites across Australia. AWC is a leading proponent of the reintroduction of regionally extinct mammals to feral predator-free areas, with seven fenced areas on the mainland plus one on Kangaroo Island, and one predator-free island, in the program. These projects currently protect 15 nationally threatened mammal species.

Scotia Mammal Trapping W. Lawler
Jamie Dunlop weighs an animal to check its health.
Collaboration

AWC ecologists collaborate with a wide range of researchers and institutions. We are involved in formal collaborations with a number of leading researchers and research organisations and were the only NGO included as a formal partner in the NESP (National Environmental Science Program) Threatened Species Recovery Hub. We support dozens of external research projects on our properties. Our research, and that of external researchers working on our properties, has resulted in over 400 peer-reviewed publications to date. The direction of our research, and the science program generally, is subject to the oversight and review of AWC’s Science Advisory Network – a team of leading researchers, each with expertise in an area of science relevant to our conservation work.

 Bradon Riles and Larissa Potter process a Northern Quoll S Cameron/AWC
Bradon Riles and Larissa Potter process a Northern Quoll.
Looking forward

Australia supports a unique biota, with profound cultural importance to Indigenous people and of global biodiversity value. The threats to Australia’s wildlife continue to accumulate, with incursions of novel pathogens, weeds and feral animals, the expanding footprint of development and the accelerating impacts of climate change. AWC’s science program draws on a range of skillsets, from the knowledge of our Indigenous partners, the ancient arts of animal tracking and natural history, to cutting-edge developments in technology, to provide the information required by our field team to effectively conserve wildlife. These components will continue to work together to combat existing and novel threats to Australian wildlife with robust science at the core of AWC’s conservation efforts.
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