By Dr John Kanowski, Chief Science Officer, and Dr Liana Joseph, National Science Manager
Our world is precious. Nature is under threat. Species are disappearing, along with their intricate interactions. We must do something! What can we do?
These are the thoughts, feelings and sense of connection that motivate us to conserve wildlife. But what should we do? Where should we start? Which species most need our assistance? These questions go to the role of science in conservation. Our heads, as well as our hearts, must be engaged for conservation to be effective.
One of the distinguishing features of AWC is the scale of our investment in science. AWC currently employs more than 50 professional field ecologists, including 24 with PhDs. Across the continent, we undertake the most extensive biodiversity survey program in Australia, involving more than 220,000 trap nights every year. Our internship program provides intensive training in fieldwork for eight to 10 ecology honours graduates every year. We collaborate with external researchers from most Australian universities, CSIRO and some international research groups.
The purpose of AWC’s science program is fundamentally simple – to provide information to make our conservation activities more effective.
Monitoring for EcoHealth
On new properties, our ecologists conduct inventories to find out what species are present. This is the fun stuff, choosing a promising-looking location on Google Earth, and dropping in by foot, 4WD, boat or helicopter to conduct a survey. As we go to press, we are conducting inventories on Bullo River Station, where our ecologists have recorded the Wyulda (Scaly-tailed Possum) for the first time ever in the Northern Territory. Other inventory work is being conducted on our new partnership programs in the Kimberley: Dambimangari and Wilinggin lands.
Once we have established a reasonable inventory of species present on a property, we implement EcoHealth monitoring to track the status and trend of key species, as well as threats to those species. Where feasible, baseline data are collected to enable us to measure the impact of our actions over time.
A great deal of thought goes into the development of the plans that underpin this work. Ecologists draw on conceptual models of interactions between species, their habitats and threatening processes to determine which species, habitats and threats should be the focus of monitoring activity [Fig. 1]. Surveys are then designed to obtain the required information – considerations include the number of sites and their distribution (by habitat and space) across a property, the intensity of surveys at a site, the frequency of surveys, and what sort of methods and equipment should be used. Ecologists draw on their experience, analysis of existing data, the literature and discussions with peers to determine optimal survey design and allocation of effort. Over time, as data is accumulated, the optimal design is refined. Technological advancements also change the equation. The development of remotely-triggered cameras has allowed AWC to greatly increase survey effort for small-medium sized mammals across remote landscapes whereas such surveys once relied on live-trapping, which is labour intensive and limited to a few sites at any time.
The primary purpose of EcoHealth monitoring is to provide AWC ecologists and managers with information on the status and trends of key species and threats. Armed with this knowledge, managers can make informed decisions about whether to intervene in a system and how best to direct resources, such as to increase predator control if populations of threatened mammals are in decline. Determining whether changes observed in monitoring programs are of conservation concern however, can be challenging – particularly in the boom-bust conditions that prevail over much of Australia where species undergo large variations in abundance in response to environmental conditions.
At AWC’s Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, in the Kimberley, populations of small mammals have gone through two cycles of boom and bust in the past 15 years [Fig. 2]. With such large natural variations in abundance, it is difficult to discern any underlying signal. AWC’s monitoring program in the Kimberley has been designed to tease out the impacts of AWC’s conservation management from underlying natural cycles. Survey sites have been stratified by grazing history, among other factors; our survey data shows that small mammals on Mornington have responded positively to destocking across all phases of the cycle. This information, coupled with targeted research on the ecology of small mammals, feral cats and fire, has led to a deeper understanding of the factors driving mammal decline in northern Australia. As a result, AWC has sharpened its focus on the effective management of introduced herbivores and fire, to better conserve mammal populations.
A third major area of activity for AWC’s science program is applied conservation research. At present, AWC staff are participating in 40 active research projects. Major research themes include the ecology of threatened wildlife, and how to best implement management to improve the conservation of threatened wildlife. Some current projects include;
• studies of the response of native plants and animals, and ecological processes, to the reintroduction of locally-extinct mammals to fenced areas on AWC’s sanctuaries;
• research on the ecology of feral cats and foxes, and their response to control, aimed ultimately at facilitating the safe release of threatened mammals outside fenced areas; and
• research attempting to train Northern Quolls to avoid eating cane toads currently invading the Kimberley, using the concept of ‘conditioned taste aversion’.
All AWC’s research projects are aimed at improving the conservation of our wildlife and their habitats. One of AWC’s strengths is our capacity to integrate science and land management – for example, in the feral predator ecology project, AWC’s land managers conduct fox baiting, while AWC ecologists monitor the density and movements of feral cats and foxes. The diagram above illustrates the main components of AWC’s science program, and the links between them [Fig. 3]. Importantly, as shown in the diagram, expertise in conservation management is held by both ecologists and land management staff, who work together to devise conservation strategies on AWC properties. Land management staff generally implement fire, weed and feral animal control, while the ecologists are tasked with conducting inventory, monitoring and research, as described above.
The purpose of our work is to improve our knowledge of the remarkable biodiversity we protect and ensure we are efficiently and effectively protecting the native species and the natural world that we are a part of, have responsibility for, and care about. The integration of science with land management at AWC means that science informs our on-ground actions, enables us to measure our progress, continuously refine our approach and direct resources to where we can generate the most positive conservation outcomes.