Up ahead. In the red glow from our torches. Movement. My eyes narrow, trying to make out the creature, now stationary, among the spiky grass tussocks.
It moves again, hopping forward a few times into a patch of open ground and starting to dig with its clawed front feet. A small mammal, about the size of a rabbit, but looking a bit like a miniature wallaby. My first woylie – a critically endangered marsupial otherwise known as a brush-tailed bettong. And there’s another. And another.
We move a little closer and there’s more movement ahead – the characteristic rolling gait and soot-stained-chimney-brush tail of a brushtail possum. I can now add two more species to the echidna, southern brown bandicoots, western grey kangaroos, quokkas and tammar and western brush wallabies I saw earlier.
I’m in Karakamia, a 275-hectare sanctuary in southwest Western Australia, about 50 kilometres northeast of Perth. And it truly is a sanctuary. Containing a diversity of habitats – including jarrah forest, marri and wandoo woodland, and granitic heathlands – it’s completely free of the feral animals that have been responsible for precipitating the worst mammal extinction crisis of modern times elsewhere in Australia. The reserve is surrounded by a specially designed fence, without which this mini-Eden would quickly be overrun
by foxes and feral cats, and the woylies that I’m currently entranced by would all be gone within weeks.
Indeed, Karakamia hosts one of the most significant remaining wild populations of the woylie. Its complement has been stable at around 400–600 for the past ten years, in stark contrast to elsewhere in southwestern Australia, where the overall population has declined by 90 per cent over the past 15 years. The sanctuary also hosts important populations of other threatened and declining mammals, including the tammar wallaby, the quenda and the western ringtail possum.
Karakamia's population of tammar wallabies has been so successful that it now provides animals for other protected areas. Photo courtesy of AWC
Named for the red-tailed black cockatoo (‘Karak’), one of three species of black cockatoo found on the reserve, Karakamia is one of 23 properties owned and managed by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), an independent, non-profit conservation organisation. Together, these properties cover an area of more than three million hectares, making it the largest private conservation organisation in Australia.
Historically, the land on which Karakamia now sits would have supported about 15 mammal species, but when the property was first surveyed, there were only three: kangaroos, which were too big for the foxes, a few bush wallabies and some echidnas, which are too prickly for the feral predators to take on. After the fence was put up, a few more small mammals showed up – antechinus and dunnarts – which might have been there originally, or they might have climbed through the fence.
Six species were then introduced into the sanctuary, all of which used to be native to the area – the woylie, the southern brown bandicoot, the tammar wallaby, the ringtail possum, the numbat and the quokka. The animals used for the reintroductions came from a number of different locations around the state, including nature reserves, housing developments and wildlife parks.
The populations of all are now self-sustaining, with the exception of the numbats, whose population remains small and must be supplemented periodically, most recently with animals from Perth Zoo. The woylie and tammar wallaby population have both grown so strongly that Karakamia is now a source for restocking other protected areas.
The origins of the AWC go back to 1991. ‘The AWC was originally set up by a gentleman by the name of Martin Copley, who’s an Englishman by birth,’ explains Atticus Fleming, AWC’s chief executive. ‘He built up, ran and eventually sold an insurance company in London. His family has long had connections with Australia and he was inspired by similar sanctuaries in South Australia and decided to set up Karakamia.’
The sanctuary was originally established to try to address Australia’s mammal extinction crisis. ‘This country has the world’s worst record of mammal extinction; in the past 200 years, 29 Australian mammals have gone extinct, which is around a third of the world’s mammal extinctions in that period,’ Fleming explains. ‘Obviously, that isn’t something that we can do anything about – extinction is forever – but on top of those 29 species, there are more than 60 species on the threatened list.’
Copley’s success at Karakamia encouraged him to aim even higher. ‘Because it worked so well, he funded the acquisition of Paruna sanctuary, then Faure Island, which is up in Shark Bay, then Mount Gibson, which is about 350 kilometres northeast of Perth, then Mornington, which is up in the Kimberley,’ Fleming says. ‘By that point, Martin could see the huge potential for a broad-based, private-sector conservation organisation in Australia, and he established AWC as a non-profit entity that all Australians could support. We now have 23 sanctuaries across Australia and thousands of Australians who support the organisation through donations, volunteering and in other ways, which is fantastic.’
Karakamia is surrounded by a feral-predator-proof fence. Photo courtesy of AWC
Fleming himself started out as a corporate lawyer, before moving into constitutional law and working for the Federal Attorney-General’s Department. He then became an advisor on the personal staff of the then federal environment minister, Robert Hill. It was this experience that convinced him that the way in which conservation was carried out in Australia needed to change. ‘In Australia, conservation has essentially been left to the government, but it became increasingly clear to me that Australia’s environmental problems were too big for the government to handle on its own,’ he explains. ‘Australia is different in the sense that looking after big, remote spaces requires something more than what the government has offered. So we needed a new model in Australia for conservation.
‘At the same time as I was finishing as a ministerial advisor, Martin had developed a vision of establishing a national charitable organisation that could lead the way in halting and reversing the mammal extinction crisis,’ he continues. ‘I was looking for my next challenge and he employed me as his first chief executive.’
Today, the AWC’s holdings put it at the forefront of private conservation in Australia, and indeed, the world. ‘I’m not sure that there’s another private conservation organisation in the world that owns and manages as much land,’ Fleming says. ‘The Nature Conservancy in the USA has purchased more, but it has sold a big proportion of what it has purchased to the government.’
And as he points out, Australia’s national parks services are all state or territory based. ‘So in a sense, we’ve almost become the de facto national conservation agency, because no
other organisation owns the spread of properties that we have,’ Fleming says.
The AWC’s portfolio takes in a wide diversity of habitats, from desert to rainforest and virtually everything in between. This diversity is reflected in the animals and plants that the reserves support: more than 80 per cent of all of Australia’s bird species are found on at least one of the reserves; for mammals, it’s about two thirds.
According to Fleming, one of the AWC’s defining traits is that it brings a business-like approach to the way in which it goes about its work. ‘Eighty per cent of our staff are actually based in the field; there isn’t another organisation in Australia that deploys such a high proportion of its resources in the field,’ he says. ‘We manage more fox- and cat-free land on mainland Australia than anyone else. We’ve done well over 60 translocations of endangered mammals. So we’re operating on a large scale and I think that that’s possible because of the business-like, practical approach that we take.’
An organisation such as this couldn’t function without being underpinned by sound science, however. ‘Science is a key part of what we do; it informs all of the land management,’ Fleming says. ‘We’re different to a lot of groups in that we have a large number of scientists on staff who live on our properties full time. Their role, broadly speaking, is to measure the properties’ health, which, in turn, informs the development of our land-management strategies – fire management, feral-animal control and so on.’
Along with these constant ‘health checks’, the scientists are involved in carrying out species inventories and the translocation of animals among reserves and to and from the wild. ‘But importantly, there’s a whole series of research questions that we need to address in order to come up with strategies to deal with things such as feral cats,’ Fleming says. ‘There’s a lot we don’t know and we’re trying to fill those gaps through some strategically targeted research.’
Feral cats are the scourge of Australia’s wildlife, killing an estimated 75 million native animals every night across the country. ‘We have 8,000 cat-free hectares in New South Wales surrounded by a fence, but if you want to take things to another order of magnitude and start looking at places that are 200,000 hectares or two million hectares in size, fencing needs to be supported by other strategies,’ Fleming says. ‘So at the landscape level, we’re looking at other options, such as how you can use dingoes to suppress cat activity.’
Guided nocturnal tours of the sanctuary give visitors the chance to observe some of the endangered animals it protects. Photo courtesy of AWC
The work that the AWC has been doing – and the success that it has enjoyed – raises some fundamental questions about the role of governments in conservation. Traditionally, it has been up to governments to set conservation policy, to pass legislation to protect species and areas, and then to manage those areas and enforce the relevant legislation.
But in Fleming’s opinion, at least in Australia, the conservation challenge is too great for government alone. ‘The key is that we have the worst mammal extinction rate in the world,’ he explains. ‘We’re a developed country with a massive, very complex environment. We’re one of the top ten countries in the world in terms of biodiversity, but we also have a very poor record over the past 200 years, and the sheer scale of the challenge we’re facing is pretty immense. Certainly, it’s just too much for government alone. The government is always going to have an ongoing role, but the private sector, and organisations such as the AWC, are going to have to take on more and more.
‘The government has a mixed record on conservation – it has done some things well, but other things haven’t been successful,’ he continues. ‘In every other sector, there’s an ongoing debate about the appropriate role for the government – is it setting policy, is it providing funding, is it setting up programmes? And the answer is probably a little different depending on which sector you look at.’
According to Fleming, that debate hasn’t really taken place in the conservation sector. ‘I think that if we did have that debate, the answer would be that the government has an important role to play in saving Australian wildlife, but it isn’t always going to be in delivering programmes, particularly in remote areas, because that’s a task that’s often delivered better by someone else,’ he says. ‘The government might fund those programmes, or part-fund them, and set some rules and policy, but the actual delivery would be better done
by someone else – by someone like the AWC, by an indigenous ranger group, or in some cases, by private landholders.
‘So the old days of assuming that you should have public servants out in remote areas delivering conservation, whether it’s fire management or feral animal control, those days are gone, really,’ he continues. ‘There will be occasions when that’s appropriate, but there will be occasions when it will be better done by someone else.’
None of which is to say that the AWC doesn’t work with the government. ‘We deal with government agencies on a daily basis – at both the federal and state level – and they’re always going to have a vitally important role to play in conservation,’ Fleming says. ‘The issue is always going to be defining that role, defining the way in which the government engages with the other parties and individuals who operate in that sector.
‘Here in Western Australia, I think that they’re becoming more pragmatic about how to get things done,’ he continues. ‘So I have a positive outlook. With a lot of the work we do, the government is almost always involved, and is very supportive. About half of the properties we’ve acquired have been acquired with some financial support from the federal government. The government is a very big supporter of the AWC and an important partner, but the nature of that partnership has to evolve in a way that delivers the best outcome for conservation.’
When to go
The milder temperatures of spring (September–November) and autumn (March–May) make these good times to visit. Late spring also brings spectacular displays of wildflowers.
Several airlines offer flights from London to Perth, with prices starting from around £850 return. Karakamia is located about an hour east of Perth, near the small town of Chidlow. Visitors can take a two-hour guided spotlight walk at dusk on Friday and Saturday nights. Tickets cost AU$20 for adults, AU$15 for children and AU$60 for a family of four.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy: www.australianwildlife.org
This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical magazine.