Feature

Adders, Arson & Floods: Meet One of AWC’s Toughest Teams This World Ranger Day

31 Jul. 2022
Sally Gray/AWC

July 31 is World Ranger Day – an internationally renowned day to recognise the hard work and sacrifices of those who protect wildlife in the field. The day also commemorates rangers injured or killed in the line of duty.

70% of AWC staff work in the field, fulfilling our hands-on approach to conservation by responding to unique environmental challenges on the ground 24-7.

Sanctuary managers are fundamental to our operations – coordinating land management, stakeholder engagement, infrastructure development, research, and other conservation programs simultaneously. It’s a mammoth effort that not just anyone could manage… But Graham Woods and Sally Gray are (like all our sanctuary managers) far from regular.

Graham and Sal backburning Josh Newling/AWC
Sal and Graham deliver fire management across the sanctuary’s complex landscape, which usually involves prescribed burning in the early dry season and, if required, fire suppression in the late dry.

The couple have dedicated almost a decade to managing Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary, and they are proud of how far things have come.

“Nine years ago yesterday, we drove in and started working,” says Graham.

“We threw our gear out onto the veranda and that’s where it stayed. For three months we never got back to it. It was just daylight to dusk.”

And they’ve been very successful. Their fire management has effectively increased the health of the sanctuary’s landscape, by limiting the frequency and spread of arson and dry season wildfires. As a result, the extent of vegetation not subject to a late dry season fire for at least three years has increased from 5% in 2008 to 72% in 2017, protecting many vulnerable species.

Through innovative science-led land management procedures, they’ve saved the largest and most intact tropical grasslands in the high rainfall belt of northern Australia from the damage caused by weeds and feral herbivore grazing.

Since starting at Piccaninny, they have removed 9,708 pigs, 10,873 cattle, and 930 horses from the area.

Referencing hectares of Northern Savannah Grasslands they brought back from the brink, Graham says, “they haven’t looked like that since 1954. And they’re gonna look that for future generations.”

Piccaninny 2017 7823 Sally Gray/AWC
Covering almost 165,000 hectares, Piccaninny Plains is a property of stunning ecological diversity, protecting a mosaic of rainforests, woodlands, wetlands and grasslands and iconic wildlife. S Gray/AWC

While working towards these achievements, they have also juggled the smaller tasks that keep the place running – upgrading buildings, refencing 300 kilometers of fences, changing power and water systems, running tours…

After the isolation of the pandemic, some might baulk at the thought of their work environment being their home environment, or seeing only their partner for five months at a time. Sal and Graham experience this annually when the rivers flood over with monsoonal rains, and they can’t get past the front gate without a helicopter.

Sal says it’s been a great achievement for them “to learn to work together twenty-four-seven in an often very challenging environment. Not many couples would survive.”

Especially, as Graham puts it, “when one half of the party is your boss.”

Sal (who’s technically Assistant Manager) quips back, “we haven’t decided which half,” and Graham smiles, showing deep, sun-weathered crinkles.

“It’s been good for our personal relationship,” he says. “You know that old saying – what doesn’t break you makes you stronger, well, yeah, we’re a bit like crap on the blanket now, we’re hard to scrape off.” Sal laughs unreservedly.

Sal and Graham on boat Joanne Heathcote/AWC

Their good humour has carried them through a lot, to the point where they’ll take Death Adders invading their house on the chin, referencing them as if they were no more of a nuisance than weevils.

“We’re still a little bit mystified why we had a sudden influx. We would have at least three or four a week, sometimes, one every day,” Graham says. “In the shed, our office, our kitchen, the dining room, our loading bay… everywhere.”

When asked how they dealt with the onslaught, Sal shrugs matter-of-factly. “We moved them,” she says, as if it it’s just that simple.

Death Adder Sally Gray/AWC
One of many Death Adders Sal and Graham encountered.

They say they forget how much wildlife they interact with daily.

“Sitting on the veranda in the morning, having your coffee, a wallaby will fly past closely followed by a dingo, doing their thing.”

The uniqueness of their situation may slip by them, but the purpose of their work is always front of mind.

“It’s pretty remarkable to think that, you know, in a pretty short period of time you can change country for the better if you just focus work efforts,” Sal says, and Graham agrees, “It doesn’t take much.”

“You take the impact out of the country; the country will heal itself very quickly. Like as soon as we started the feral operation, it was only a matter of 12 months and you could see the difference of just taking a small amount of ferals out of the situation, how quick the lagoons and wildlife came back.”

Wallaby and Wagtail Piccaninny Sally Gray / AWC
An Agile Wallaby and Willy Wagtail enjoy Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary’s lush habitat. S Gray/AWC

Thinking back on all they’ve achieved, Sal says, “It’s pretty amazing to think that we can leave something for the future generations, to actually see what the country was like.”

Graham nods pensively. “When I’m dead and gone, it’s still gonna be here,” he says. “And for me the most rewarding part of this job has been able to put back. My last job for my life is all about putting back, you know, and that’s it.”

AWC thanks Sal and Graham, and all our sanctuary managers and field staff for their incredible efforts and accomplishments. We’re deeply grateful for the tireless work of all our rangers, who are building a legacy to be proud of.

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