Feature

Seven Ways AWC is Protecting Australia’s Biodiversity

19 Sep. 2022
Gina Barnett & Wayne Lawler/AWC

In case you missed it, September is Biodiversity Month – a time to recognise the importance of protecting, managing, and restoring biodiversity. We’re having a great month here at AWC, because generating positive results for biodiversity is our forte.

The AWC mission is to conserve all Australian animal species and the habitats in which they live and we currently protect a large proportion of Australia’s native species, including:

  • 74 per cent of terrestrial mammals
  • 88 per cent of terrestrial birds
  • 56 per cent of amphibians
  • 54 per cent of reptiles.

Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary in North Queensland, purchased in 2004, has possibly the highest level of biodiversity of any single property in Australia.

The secret to AWC’s success is our commitment to practical, on-ground land management informed by world-class science. What does this work involve? Let’s dive in.

AWC ecologist Dr Eridani Mulder assesses a Lesser long-eared bat for condition during a fauna survey to assess conservation management effectiveness on Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary, adjoining the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, North Queensland, Australia. Photography credit: Wayne Lawler/AWC.

 

Comprehensive Ecological Research
AWC ecologist Dr Eridani Mulder assesses a Lesser long-eared bat for condition during a fauna survey to assess conservation management effectiveness on Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary, adjoining the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, North Queensland, Australia. Photography credit: Wayne Lawler/AWC. Wayne Lawler/AWC.
AWC ecologist Dr Eridani Mulder assesses a Lesser long-eared bat for condition during a fauna survey to assess conservation management effectiveness on Brooklyn Wildlife Sanctuary, adjoining the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, North Queensland, Australia.

 

Understanding the complexity and dynamics of Australia’s rich ecosystems is paramount to preserving them. AWC focuses heavily on studying how threatening processes operate – including changed fire regimes, feral herbivore impacts, and feral predators – to consistently improve our threat management and bring about recovery in ecological health. AWC has also conducted countless research projects investigating the ecology of threatened species at our sanctuaries.

We’re at the forefront of research into fire management, which is applied in our large-scale prescribed burning programs. Take our seminal work conducted at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the central Kimberley, where scientists demonstrated a recovery in small mammal populations following several years of strategic prescribed burning in the early dry season. Simultaneously, the research showed that small mammal population recovery was much more significant in destocked areas – underscoring the importance of managing multiple, interacting threats in a strategic way.

 

Australia’s Most Extensive Biodiversity Monitoring Program
John Kanowski, Northern Region ecologist and Frank Shadforth, Seven-Emu landholder and AWC neighbour check funnel traps during the May-June 2009 Biological Survey of Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary, Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory. Photography credit: Wayne Lawler/AWC. Wayne Lawler/AWC.
John Kanowski, Northern Region ecologist and Frank Shadforth, Seven-Emu landholder and AWC neighbour check funnel traps during the May-June 2009 Biological Survey of Pungalina-Seven Emu Wildlife Sanctuary, Gulf of Carpentaria, Northern Territory.

If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. And so, AWC’s ecological health monitoring framework is at the heart of our conservation approach, designed to measure and report on the overall health of ecosystems under our care.

We monitor and report on the status and trends of species, ecological processes, and threats at each of our sanctuaries to obtain an accurate picture of ecological health. Our teams in the field measure a range of different indicators, from threatened species populations to the extent of wildfires and distribution of weeds.

The information generated is compiled into annual Ecohealth Reports – concise snapshots of the overall condition of each sanctuary. Data generated from ecological health monitoring can also be combined with research projects to explain why biodiversity indicators are increasing or decreasing. For instance, we’re undertaking a nationwide project on the effects of mammal reintroduction on vegetation, with preliminary findings suggesting mammals contribute to shaping the structure and composition of vegetation, potentially playing a role in the restoration of original landscapes.

Managing the largest network of cat- and fox-free safe havens on mainland Australia
Finished Western River Refuge Fence At Sunset. Photography Credit Awc AWC
Finished Western River Refuge Fence At Sunset.

 

In Australia, the most significant driver of mammal extinctions has been predation by feral cats and foxes. These extinctions create gaps in our interwoven ecosystems, fraying food-webs and causing snowballing biodiversity loss.

AWC is leading the charge against feral cats and foxes by:

  • Building a network of large feral predator-free fenced havens. AWC currently owns five of the largest predator-free fenced areas on mainland Australia, and is expanding this network.
  • Conducting best practice predator control beyond the fence, using a combination of direct and indirect methods, including shooting, traditional tracking and managing vegetation to promote shelter for wildlife and reduce the impact of predation.
  • Coordinating a ground-breaking research program to establish whether it is possible to suppress populations of feral predators to a level such that threatened mammals can survive in an unfenced landscape. This crucial research is helping to improve the effectiveness of control strategies.
  • Investing in development of a long-term genetic solution, with the aid of partners like the CSIRO.

 

Australia’s most extensive wildlife reintroduction program
Mala are important to the Warlpiri Traditional Owners. Witnessing the release are Geofrey Pollard, AWC Ranger Christine Ellis and Janesha Michaels. Photography credit: Brad Leue/AWC. Brad Leue/AWC
Mala are important to the Warlpiri Traditional Owners. Witnessing the release are Geofrey Pollard, AWC Ranger Christine Ellis and Janesha Michaels.

A world leader in threatened mammal translocations, AWC’s network of feral predator-free and feral predator-reduced safe havens has enabled the reintroduction of 20 threatened and locally extinct mammal species and the founding of 45 populations across 10 sanctuaries and partnership areas. This work improves species’ conservation prospects, as establishing self-sustaining, genetically diverse populations within their former ranges, restores species assemblages and their associated ecological processes.

AWC’s nine and counting feral-free areas across Australia protect some of the largest remaining populations of threatened species, such as the Bilby, Numbat and Mala (Rufous Hare-wallaby).

Translocations involve a lot of hard work behind the scenes. Each translocation requires unique preparations, including identifying source populations, habitat assessments, threat minimisation (notably feral predator control), disease risk assessments, and consideration of any ongoing management requirements. Animals being translocated are then trapped, undergo health checks and tagging, before being transported to the release site. Finally, they receive ongoing monitoring to evaluate the success of the reintroduction.

Implementing Australia’s largest private fire management program
AWC land manager Darcy Ginty (driving) and volunteer land manager Julian Madigan use a drip torch to ignite a low intensity winter burn for ecological fire management on Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, Central Australia Wayne Lawler/AWC
AWC land manager Darcy Ginty (driving) and volunteer land manager Julian Madigan use a drip torch to ignite a low intensity winter burn for ecological fire management on Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, Central Australia

Australia’s terrestrial biodiversity has been further diminished because of the habitat degradation brought about by bad fire management practices since European colonisation. For millennia, the use of fire by First Nations Australians led to nuanced, regular fire regimes that became an integral part of long-term ecological cycles. Disruption to traditional burning led to an unravelling of those processes. Restoring ecologically appropriate fire regimes is the primary objective of fire management on AWC sanctuaries.

Our approach varies between regions and ecosystems: different strategies are required to manage fire in the Central Australian deserts to in the tall, wet eucalypt forests of Mt Zero-Taravale, or in the tropical savannah woodlands of Cape York and the Kimberley.

In total, prescribed burns across AWC sanctuaries cover more than one million hectares each year, reducing the threat of major wildfires that impact large areas of habitat and protecting unburnt patches of habitat and refuge for animals.

Combatting feral herbivores
Feral Camel Control On Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, Near The Tanami Desert, Central Australia, Northern Territory. Photography Credit Wayne Lawlerawc Wayne Lawler/AWC
Feral Camel Control On Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, Near The Tanami Desert, Central Australia, Northern Territory.

AWC manages feral herbivores across our sanctuaries and partnership properties, as they consume and trample vegetation, remove ground cover and devastate wetlands, thereby removing shelter (increasing exposure to feral predators) and food for native animals. We combine strategic fencing, mustering and working closely with neighbouring grazing properties to achieve optimal results. These methods have seen excellent results, with small mammal numbers doubling at Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary in the Kimberley after the removal of feral herbivores.

Using strategic fencing, AWC has created Australia’s largest functionally feral herbivore-free ecosystems on the mainland at Wongalara (100,000 hectares), Pungalina-Seven Emu (80,000 hectares) and Mornington-Marion Downs-Tableland (600,000 hectares) Wildlife Sanctuaries.

Practical and innovative weed control measures
Jenny and Richard Kelloway, AWC volunteer rangers, control wheel cactis, a noxious weed on Buckaringa Wildlife Sanctuary, a senic conservation reserve protecting a population of endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia. Photography credit: Wayne Lawler/AWC. Wayne Lawler/AWC
Jenny and Richard Kelloway, AWC volunteer rangers, control wheel cactis, a noxious weed on Buckaringa Wildlife Sanctuary, a senic conservation reserve protecting a population of endangered Yellow-footed Rock Wallaby in the Flinders Ranges, South Australia.

Weeds have a range of impacts on vegetation and ecological processes – some, especially the fast-growing grasses, can greatly increase the spread and intensity of fires. All compete with native plants and can significantly degrade habitat.

AWC implements a range of weed control strategies to combat these impacts, ranging from landscape-scale approaches using fire to address weeds such as lantana and rubber vine, through to intensive, site-specific programs for local invasive weed species.

From 2013-14, our expertise in weed management was recognised by the Federal Government, which through its Biodiversity Fund, funded AWC to deliver an almost $1.5 million program to reduce the extent of invasive grasses and riparian weeds across several sites in three different states across Northern Australia.

From the Pine Donkey Orchid to the Palm Cockatoo, the Banded Hare-wallaby to the Blue Banded bee, our vision is to see a world where Australia’s biodiversity is valued and effectively conserved by an engaged community, and we’re doing everything we can to make this happen.

Join us in our mission and support our wonderful unique species this Biodiversity Month.

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