Australian Wildlife Conservancy was born out of one man’s mission to turn back the tide of extinctions of Australia’s native species. Here is our history.View timeline
In early 1991, Martin Copley established AWC’s first sanctuary, Karakamia, in the Perth Hills. Martin’s ‘lightbulb moment’ – that he could take action to halt Australia’s extinction crisis and reverse the decline of native wildlife – was partly inspired by the work of environmentalist John Wamsley. Martin wanted to start a sanctuary free of feral predators in Western Australia where native mammals could once again flourish, similar to Wamsley’s Warrawong Sanctuary in South Australia.
Even at this early stage, Martin had a vision of a new, non-profit model for conservation – a model that could lead the way in reversing the decline of Australia’s species. Karakamia was the first private nature reserve in Western Australia, marking the beginning of an expanding contribution by the private sector to conservation in the state. Work began almost immediately on the construction of AWC’s first feral predator-proof fence.
Premier of Western Australia, the Hon Richard Court AC, offically opened Karakamia on 22 December 1994. Backed by the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management, Martin and his team had already released Woylies (Brush-tailed Bettongs, Bettongia penicillata) and Quenda (Isoodon fusciventer) into the sanctuary’s feral predator-free fenced area, and would go on to release a range of threatened mammals including Western Ringtail Possums (Pseudocheirus occidentalis).
These releases into a private fenced wildlife sanctuary were the first of their kind in Western Australia. The success of the program would lead AWC to become a leading proponent of reintroducing threatened mammals to feral predator-free areas across Australia.
The success of Karakamia inspired Martin to look for more land and he began buying properties along the southern slopes of the Avon Valley in the Perth hills.
By 1998 he had consolidated these purchases to establish Paruna Wildlife Sanctuary. At 2,500 hectares, Paruna represented a sizeable leap in scale from Karakamia, and formed a crucial wildlife corridor between the Walyunga and Avon Valley National Parks. This established a combined protected area of approximately 19,500 hectares and demonstrated that private sanctuaries could compliment the public national park system.
In 1998 Paruna was offically opened by Professor Tim Flannery, after which he joined Martin Copley AM, Ross Ledger AM and Dr Barry Wilson on the AWC Board. Together, Tim and Barry brought a science focus to the core activities of the organisation.
The purchase of Faure Island provided a unique opportunity to establish a 6,000-hectare ‘Island Ark’ for threatened mammals. In partnership with the Western Australian Government, AWC undertook a feral cat and feral herbivore eradication program and Faure Island became the third largest island in the world on which these introduced species had been eradicated.
AWC has since successfully established self-sustaining populations of five locally extinct mammal species on the island. Faure Island is part of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area, one of only 16 natural sites in Australia listed as being of outstanding universal value.
The acquisition of Mt Gibson (130,000 hectares) was a substantial leap in scale for AWC. The first goat-resistant (deterrent) fence was established, along with the removal of artificial water points, resulting in a significant recovery of vegetation.
A few years later, trials of novel feral cat baits would make Mt Gibson a key early component of AWC’s strategic research program into landscape-scale feral predator control. The sanctuary would also become the site of one of AWC’s most ambitious and successful mammal restoration programs.
In the absence of feral predators, Karakamia’s mammal populations were booming, bucking the national trend of large-scale mammal decline. This allowed for the translocation and establishment of new populations at Paruna.
Starting in 2000, Woylies (Bettongia penicillata), Quenda (Isoodon fusciventer) and Tammar Wallabies (Macropus eugenii) were translocated from Karakamia to Paruna, re-establishing and/or boosting the local populations. This was the first in a long line of species translocations between sanctuaries for AWC.
However, in the absence of fencing at Paruna, the more vulnerable species like the Woylie did not persist in the presence of foxes and cats, an outcome that informed the design of AWC’s reintroduction program going forward.
In 2001 Martin acquired Mornington, a vast cattle station covering sprawling savanna grassland and the ancient sandstone ranges of the central Kimberley.
At over 310,000 hectares, Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary became one of Australia’s largest non-government protected areas and a haven for threatened wildlife like the Gouldian Finch (Chloebia gouldiae) and the Wogoit (Rock Ringtail Possum, Petropseudes dahlii).
Mornington’s isolated location presented a new challenge – undertaking conservation in an extremely remote location. This led AWC to adopt a boots-on-the-ground approach, basing staff out in the field, which is now a key feature of AWC’S conservation model.
Seven years later, in 2008, Mornington expanded to become Mornington-Marion Downs (560,000 hectares). This vast protected area is a stronghold for species that are rapidly disappearing elsewhere across northern Australia.
After expanding the organisation considerably through his own private contributions, Martin took the enormous step of turning AWC into a national not-for-profit charitable organisation.
AWC’s inaugural CEO, Atticus Fleming, was recruited to lead the new public-facing organisation, to implement Martin’s vision and develop a new model for conservation spearheaded by a national fundraising program to fight Australia’s extinction crisis.
The AWC fundraising model focused on private philanthropy and borrowed from the successful approach adopted by the American NGO, The Nature Conservancy.
Swift expansion followed, with the first two major campaigns focusing on the acquisition of Mount Zero Sanctuary in north Queensland to save the Northern Bettong (Bettongia tropica) and a reintroduction program of threatened mammals to world heritage listed Faure Island.
The purchase of Mount Zero in 2002 (becoming Mount Zero-Taravale in 2003) marked AWC’s first sanctuary acquisition outside of Western Australia and set AWC on the path to become a nationally significant private (non-profit) conservation organisation.
In 2002, AWC also purchased Yookamurra, Dakalanta, Buckaringa and Scotia from John Wamsley’s organisation, Earth Sanctuaries Limited (ESL), instantly growing AWC’s portfolio from six to ten properties.
The acquisition of these ESL properties expanded AWC’s feral predator-free areas into a national network of safe havens in which endangered mammal populations could be restored.
AWC welcomed the first guests to Mornington Wilderness Camp and a world-class visitor experience.
To this day the camp provides an opportunity to educate visitors on AWC’s groundbreaking conservation work and to be immersed in the beauty of Australia’s wilderness areas.
Popular activities at Mornington include early morning bird-watching tours, canoeing down the Fitzroy River through two billion year-old Dimond Gorge, and enjoying spectacular sunsets at Sir John Gorge.
In 2003 AWC purchased Curramore Wildlife Sanctuary, located in the heart of one of Australia’s true biodiversity hotspots, the Southeast Queensland bioregion.
The property had a remarkable concentration of threatened species, imperilled by an infestation of lantana, a weed of national significance. A key part of AWC’s land management program at the sanctuary has been developing effective techniques for removing lantana and restoring rainforest habitat.
Over the last decade, Sanctuary Manager Klaus Runde and AWC volunteers have removed 45 per cent of the lantana infestation from the property, creating a showcase for lantana control in the region.
With generous support from philanthropist Mike Fidler, AWC started its first major research program into causes of decline in threatened species, focusing on the endangered Gouldian Finch (Chloebia gouldiae).
The research findings revealed the critical importance of effective fire management for reversing the decline of the species. In turn, this highlighted the crucial link between scientific research and conservation land management for generating positive outcomes for Australia’s threatened wildlife.
Today, Mornington is one of the most important sites for Gouldian Finch populations in the Kimberley.
The acquisition of Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary in north Queensland in 2004 was a purchase of national conservation significance.
Brooklyn contains an extraordinary concentration of wildlife and provides a refuge for more than 30 species that are threatened with extinction.
Of the more than 300 bird species and 80 mammal species found at Brooklyn, many are restricted to particular rainforest types in the region, including the Golden Bowerbird (Prionodura newtoniana), Victoria’s Riflebird (Ptiloris victoriae), Macleay’s Fig Parrot (Cyclopsitta diophthalma macleayana), Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus lumholtzi), Musky Rat Kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus) and several species of Mountain Ringtail Possum.
Emphasising its international conservation significance, Brooklyn is one of the most biodiverse private properties in Australia and protects the largest parcel of privately owned World Heritage listed land on the continent.
In 2004 Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary was the focus of a historic conservation agreement with the Queensland Government, ensuring protection for the sanctuary in perpetuity.
At the time this was the largest area of private land in Queensland to be granted such protection.
Located in a biodiversity hotspot, Mount Zero-Taravale protects an incredible diversity of species including over 400 species of native vertebrates.
Scotia’s ambitious Endangered Mammal Recovery Project was launched with the aim of securing new populations of six threatened mammal species in western NSW.
In the first year of the program more than 500 animals were released into the 4,000-hectare Stage 1 feral predator-free fenced area. AWC subsequently expanded this safe haven to 8,000 hectares, creating the largest feral-predator free area on mainland Australia (later this would pass to Newhaven and then Mallee Cliffs National Park).
To date, AWC has re-established populations of four nationally threatened mammals: the Bilby (Macrotis lagotis), Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus), Bridled Nailtail Wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata) and Burrowing Bettong (Bettongia lesueur). For these animals, the work at Scotia is vital to safeguard them against extinction.
In a historic partnership, Birds Australia (now Birdlife Australia) transferred ownership and management responsibility of Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary to AWC, combining the strengths of both organisations to enhance conservation outcomes.
The sanctuary lies in the arid zone of Central Australia and is renowned as a key bird-watching destination, supporting 174 species of birds.
Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary was established in 2007, transforming a former pastoral station into one of Australia’s largest private (non-profit) nature reserves.
Covering a remarkable 679,000 hectares at the intersection of three of Australia’s central deserts (the Munga-Thirri-Simpson Desert, the Tirari Desert and Sturt’s Stony Desert), the area is critical to the health of the Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre catchment.
The acquisition of Kalamurina linked Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre National Park and the Munga-Thirri-Simpson Desert Reserves. This created a contiguous protected area larger than Tasmania and a refuge for rare and threatened desert wildlife, including the Ampurta (Crest-tailed mulgara, Dasycercus cristicauda), Kultarr (Antechinomys laniger), Eyrean Grasswren (Amytornis goyderi) and Grey Grasswren (Amytornis barbatus).
In 2007 AWC’s EcoFire project was born, covering 5 million hectares in the Kimberley and involving 14 properties across multiple tenures (including on AWC, Indigenous and pastoral lands).
The key objectives of the program are to reduce the incidence of extensive, destructive and intense late dry season wildfires, and create a mosaic of burnt and long (3+ years) unburnt habitat in the landscape. In 2008 this groundbreaking program was awarded the Western Australian Environment Award.
EcoFire is the largest non-government fire management program in the country and its success has seen the program extended by AWC across more than 7 million hectares of northern Australia.
The establishment of Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary in the heart of Cape York Peninsula provided an exciting new model for conservation in the private conservation sector in Australia.
The sanctuary was jointly purchased by AWC and The Tony & Lisette Lewis Foundation. AWC is responsible for the design and delivery of conservation land management and science programs on the property.
Covering 165,000 hectares, Piccaninny Plains is AWC’s northernmost sanctuary. It is located in an area of stunning ecological diversity that uniquely blends Australian and New Guinean fauna and flora, and protects a mosaic of rainforest, woodland, wetland and grassland and iconic wildlife like the Palm Cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus), Red Goshawk (Erythrotriorchis radiatus) and Spotted Cuscus (Spilocuscus maculatus).
AWC subleased 112,000 hectares of Seven Emu from landowner, cattleman and Garawa man Frank Shadforth, marking the first leasing of Aboriginal land by a private conservation organisation to create a private nature reserve.
Pungalina-Seven Emu covers 306,000 hectares of remote Gulf Country, including 100 kilometres of the Calvert River from the interior sandstone escarpments to the coast.
The sanctuary protects 55 kilometres of pristine Gulf coastline that is of national significance to migratory shorebirds and is the only section of shoreline in the Gulf of Carpentaria that is protected from feral herbivores.
AWC embarked on its first, historic government partnership, working with Sydney Harbour Federation Trust to provide strategic advice on the protection of the headland’s endangered Eastern Suburbs Banksia Scrub community, and to deliver a range of conservation projects including the reintroduction of locally extinct species to North Head Sanctuary.
The sanctuary, comprising 74 hectares of land held by the Trust, is managed in an integrated manner with the adjoining Sydney Harbour National Park. Together, these sites represent one of the most important areas for biodiversity conservation within the Sydney Basin.
AWC has reintroduced three locally extinct mammals here: the Eastern Pygmy Possum (Cercartetus nanus), Brown Antechinus (Antechinus stuartii), and native Bush Rat (Rattus fuscipes). The reintroduction of Bush Rats was particularly exciting as this species is able to act as a biological control measure against invasive black rats, due to the Bush Rats’ territorial nature. The Bush Rat and Eastern Pygmy Possum are important pollinators of the Banskia Scrub.
The then Federal Environment Minister, the Hon Peter Garrett AM, traveled to Bowra in late May 2010 to preside over celebrations marking the acquisition of AWC’s twenty-first sanctuary, and its addition to the National Reserve System.
Located in the heart of the Mulga Lands bioregion in southern Queensland, Bowra is a birdwatcher’s paradise. It is home to more than 200 bird species including the Hall’s Babbler (Pomatostomus halli), Chestnut-breasted Quail-thrush (Cinclosoma castaneothorax), Bourke’s Parrot (Neopsephotus bourkii) and the Chirruping Wedgebill (Psophodes cristatus).
The first step was taken in the Mt Gibson Wildlife Restoration Project with the commencement of planning for the construction of a specially designed 43-kilometre feral-proof fence, built around 7,800 hectares of habitat on the sanctuary.
Fence construction was completed in June 2014. This immensely important project was instigated to reintroduce at least 10 regionally extinct and threatened mammal species.
In 2021, nine of these species have now been reintroduced, setting a new benchmark for conservation in Australia. The Woylie (Bettongia penicillata) population is estimated at over 1,000 individuals and the Bilby (Macrotis lagotis) and Numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) populations have expanded to occupy the entire safe haven.
AWC became the first NGO to enter into a native title consent determination with Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja Traditional Owners, recognising their native title rights in relation to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctauary.
As of 2021, AWC has worked in partnership with Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja Traditional Owners and Warlpiri Rangers for over a decade, on priority conservation programs including fire management, feral animal control and biological surveys to protect Newhaven’s ecological health.
In late September of 2012, as the Top End temperatures began to climb, Wongalara Wildlife Sanctuary Manager Chris Whatley and his team completed the final stages of a 160-kilometre fence to protect more than 100,000 hectares of tropical woodland, wetland and rich riparian habitat from feral herbivores.
It was a historic moment, creating the largest feral herbivore-free area on mainland Australia. For the first time in over a century, a significant area of land in the Top End was free of large feral herbivores such as buffalo, cattle, horses and donkeys.
Established in 2006, Wongalara protects over 190,000 hectares to the south of Arnhem Land. Wongalara now forms one of mainland Australia’s three largest feral herbivore-free areas (feral herbivores are also functionally extinct are on parts of AWC’s Mornington-Marion Downs-Tableland Sanctuaries and at Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary).
Yulmbu Aboriginal Corporation and AWC entered into a historic agreement, supported by the Western Australian Government.
This agreement saw Tableland Pastoral Station subleased by AWC for conservation. This was the first time in Australia that an Indigenous community sub-leased land to a non-government organisation for conservation.
Tableland abuts Mornington-Marion Downs and together these sanctuaries protect threatened wildlife and habitat across a vast 872,000 hectares of the central Kimberley.
HRH The Prince of Wales became AWC’s Patron. As Patron, The Prince of Wales highlights and promotes the globally significant efforts of AWC to halt the tide of extinctions in Australia and reverse the decline of native wildlife.
His Royal Highness is committed to conservation and has a long history of involvement and interest in environmental and conservation causes, helping to bring global attention to the plight of Australia’s threatened wildlife.
The Prince’s lifelong record of supporting conservation plays a vital role in raising awareness about the need for decisive and effective action to prevent further extinctions.
On 30 July 2014, Australia lost one of its great conservation heroes and philanthropists when Martin Copley AM, AWC’s Founder and Chair for nearly 15 years, passed away.
Martin made an extraordinary contribution to conservation, providing individuals with the opportunity to help reverse the decline of Australia’s wildlife. Over the course of his involvement, Martin’s monetary input is estimated at $70 million, but no figure can be placed on the time and passion he poured into AWC and to safeguarding Australia’s wildlife for the future.
Few people have made such an immense contribution to conservation in this country. In 2010, Martin was honoured by being made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to conservation and the environment.
The David Attenborough Field Research Station was officially opened by the Western Australian Minister for the Environment, the Hon Albert Jacob MLA.
The station was named in recognition of Sir David Attenborough’s role in inspiring science-based conservation across the planet.
It is located in the rugged sandstone gorges of the Artesian Range, in a lost world – one of the last remaining areas on mainland Australia to have suffered almost no mammal extinctions. Here AWC researchers search to unravel the secrets that allow wildlife to persist in this remote part of the continent.
In 2015 AWC launched one of the planet’s largest feral cat eradication projects, involving the establishment of a massive feral cat-free area.
The project is of global conservation significance, commencing with the completion of Stage 1. This 9,450-hectare fenced feral predator-free safe haven will provide a critical refuge for at least 10 threatened mammal species set to be restored here, including the locally extinct and endangered Mala (Rufous Hare-wallaby, Lagorchestes hirsutus; now returned to Newhaven), the critically endangered Central Rock-rat (Antina, Zyzomys pedunculatus) and the threatened Golden Bandicoot (Isoodon auratus).
Ecologists and conservation land managers have commenced assessment of Stage 2 that could potentially expand the project to 100,000 feral predator-free or controlled hectares.
AWC entered into an historic contract with the Department of Defence to deliver science and conservation land management at Yampi Sound Training Area (YSTA) – Australia’s second largest military training area.
YSTA is a hotspot for endangered and endemic wildlife, covering over 568,000 hectares of the western Kimberley. Central to the partnership is the involvement of Dambimangari People, Yampi’s Traditional Owners.
The partnership between a private conservation organisation and the military is the first of its kind in Australia, and provides a template for managing biodiversity values on military land around the world.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and AWC established a historic public-private partnership, under which AWC is contracted to deliver land management services in the iconic Pilliga State Conservation Area and Mallee Cliffs National Park.
The centrepiece of this exciting partnership is the reintroduction of at least 11 threatened and locally extinct mammal species into two massive feral predator-free areas, as part of the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program.
At Mallee Cliffs National Park, AWC has established a 9,570 hectare feral predator-free area – the largest on mainland Australia. This project with the NSW Government represents one of Australia’s most ambitious rewildling programs.
DAC and AWC established a groundbreaking partnership, working hand-in-hand to deliver conservation land management (fire management, feral animal control and weed eradication) and science programs, in keeping with Dambimangari Healthy Country Plan.
Dambimangari Country sits at the heart of the north-west Kimberley and is a refuge for mammal species that have disappeared from other parts of northern Australia, including the Golden-backed Tree Rat (Mesembriomys macrurus) and the Golden Bandicoot (Isoodon auratus).
The partnership represents a new template for conservation on Indigenous land and enables Dambimangari Traditional Owners to generate an income for delivering measurable conservation outcomes. Key to the success of the DAC-AWC partnership is the recognition of the importance of mutual and respectful exchange of culture, Aboriginal knowledge, ecological understanding and contemporary science.
At Bullo River Station, AWC and Bullo River’s owners, Julian and Alexandra Burt, entered into partnership to deliver science and conservation land management on a working cattle station.
The partnership protects a suite of threatened species in the area, and demonstrates that conservation outcomes can be achieved in tandem with a commercial and sustainable cattle operation.
The partnership has the potential to act as a catalytic model for wider application on commercial pastoral land.
AWC, in partnership with Microsoft, launched a research program using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to support AWC’s nationwide conservation programs.
A key focus has been developing an AI program that auto-detects animals in camera trap photos.
The results have delivered substantial gains in efficiency when processing camera trap images, as it automates much of the process. AWC continues to improve this AI model and to explore other forms of technological innovation as a means to increase effectiveness in the field.
WAC and AWC entered into an innovative and ambitious partnership, working collaboratively across 1.73 million hectares of the north-west Kimberley to enhance conservation science and land management in the region.
Within this area, WAC and AWC work together to enhance WAC management programs, consistent with the Wilinggin Healthy Country Plan. Wiliggin’s Wungurr Rangers have been working with Ngarinyin Traditional Owners for more than a decade to protect the cultural and natural values of the Willinggin Indigenous Protected Area.
Together, WAC and AWC aim to maintain, and where possible increase, populations of threatened species on Wilinggin Country.
In the immediate aftermath of the Black Summer (2019-2020) bushfires, AWC commenced working with Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife and local landowners the Doube family to protect the Kangaroo Island Dunnart (Sminthopsis aitkeni). The entire known range of this small marsupial was impacted by the bushfires and the future of the species was uncertain.
Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, the Doube family and AWC constructed a 13.8-hectare fenced critical refuge around remnant habitat where the Dunnarts had been detected. The Australian Army provided crucial assistance by clearing 1.7 kilometres of fence line prior to construction.
In February of 2021, the 369-hectare Western River Refuge on Kangaroo Island was launched by South Australian Minister for Environment and Water, David Speirs, securing a larger fenced haven for ecosystem recovery.
The Western River Refuge protects a suite of other threatened species including the Kangaroo Island Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), Heath Goanna (Varanus rosenbergi), Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata) and Western Whipbird (Psophodes nigrogularis lashmari). Since its construction, adult and juvenile Dunnarts have been detected throughout the protected area and a young female was captured during routine monitoring.
After the Black Summer fires, AWC was proud to be able to help with the bushfire recovery effort.
AWC ecologists and conservation land managers collaborated with local landowners and partners to assist with camera trap surveys to assess and monitor surviving wildlife, fence construction and cat trapping to protect animals from this significant threat, and Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) translocations to secure populations that were displaced. AWC was also invited to join an expert panel to provide advice to the Federal Government on how to effectively protect and restore wildlife impacted by the bushfires.
In this same year, COVID-19 erupted and restrictions meant that the implementation of many programs had to change. Despite the incredible challenges, the commitment of AWC staff and the flexibility and financial robustness of the AWC model enabled the continued delivery of conservation action.
In 2020, AWC’s conservation land managers maintained fire management, feral animal and weed control programs, including the delivery of fire management across 7 million hectares of northern Australia.
AWC ecologists reintroduced Red-tailed Phascogales (Phascogale calura) to Central Australia and Greater Stick-nest Rats (Leporillus conditor) and Numbats (Myrmecobius fasciatus) to NSW National Parks. Together, AWC land managers and ecologists undertook more than 250,000 trap nights and camera traps nights across the country.
On 2 August, 2021, marks thirty years since the purchase of Karakamia and the start of the AWC story.
Support from generous donors and innovative partnerships with Indigenous groups, governments and landholders, is seeing AWC effectively deliver conservation across 6.5 million hectares of the country. In these remote and iconic regions AWC conserves hundreds of ecosystems that provide refuge for:
This year we will release our book ‘Australian Wildlife Conservancy: celebrating the first thirty years’ to mark this special occasion. The book is a collection of stories from the AWC family, past and present, providing a window into AWC’s history and a look to the future.