By Dr John Woinarski, eminent ecologist and AWC Director
My world has been lived in and for nature. The bush permeated my childhood. Its beauty and mystery inspire me, giving salve to my life. Endlessly intrigued by how it all works, I have spent many years studying wildlife. Done well, it is the closest we can come to shape- shifting: to get to know a species and its idiosyncrasies so well that you can see and feel the world from a non-human perspective, stripping away the unconscious biases and constraints of our otherwise limited vision.
Ecology is an enduring puzzle, and there is so much in the workings of Australian nature that remains unresolved. Scientific training gave me tools to unlock and understand ecology. Fortunately, I have also worked a lot in remote communities of northern Australia, where I was shown a little of the far greater depth of understanding of nature held by Indigenous Australians. This includes the value of nature, our place within it, and our responsibility for it. Our nation would be in a better place if all Australians shared that perspective and respect for Country.
Studying and enjoying nature is a fine thing. But our nature is dwindling. Much of my career has been spent monitoring the decline of biodiversity and documenting extinctions. In a sad inquest, we recently demonstrated that 100 Australian species had been rendered extinct since 1788, with an undiminished rate of loss of about four species per decade.
We should not let those losses continue; we need to do more than admire and use our natural environments. We owe it to our descendants to leave this place as wonderful, healthy and diverse as that which we have inherited. We owe it to other species, that our collective actions should not cause their extinction. We will live better lives in this country if our natural landscapes are healthy. We can become a better society if we care more for our country and the variety of life within it.
But conservation is a formidable challenge. The wounds we have given our country are deeply etched and pervasive, and the threats are mounting. This has struck home most recently in the 2019- 20 wildfires, with the bushfires impacting innumerable animals and subverting many of the hard-won recoveries arising from decades of conservation efforts. Sadly, these fires are just a symptom of the world we will face with escalating climate change.
But conservation success is possible, and needed. A major component of biodiversity loss in Australia has been within our extraordinary radiation of mammals – Australia has lost the thylacine, and far less well-known potoroos, bilbies, rabbit-rats, hopping-mice, bandicoots and rat-kangaroos.
These losses have mostly been due to the lack of foresight or care of previous generations who introduced cats and foxes to a country without comparable predators. However, we can solve this inherited problem, at least at local levels, by establishing sanctuaries that use fencing to exclude those predators. The model works, as evident in many AWC sanctuaries where native fauna has recovered dramatically. This demonstrates that our animals aren’t effete losers predestined for extinction but that they can recover their place in a healthier Australian ecology.
In these sanctuaries, we can see a little of what Australian nature was, and can still be, and challenge how much we have come to accept a diminished biota as normal. Conservation can work to maintain and restore the life and wonder of our land.