A Safe Haven
The Business Of Conservation
Text & Photography by Eric Pasquier
Without the help of Australian Earth Sanctuaries Ltd. the Long Nosed Potoroo, the Brush Tailed Bettong or the Southern Brown Bandicoot could have been history.
Dr John Wamsley’s crusade to save Australia’s wildlife began in 1985 with the Warrawong Sanctuary. Now Wamsley’s initiative has grown into Aussie Earth Sanctuaries Ltd. – a world-renowned model for wildlife protection and the only conservation company to be listed on the stock exchange.
ERIC PASQUIER and STEPHEN DAVIES get the low-down on the exotic animals down under and the fight against their extinction.
Have you ever seen an Eastern Hare-Wallaby or a Lesser Bilby? Probably your answer to this question will be no.
Why? Because although they once populated Australia in vast numbers, now they only exist on reels of film.
This example illustrates a sad trend; extinction now threatens many species native to Australia. So who is to blame?
The finger seems to point to one species in particular, modern man – wreaking havoc in the animal kingdom by altering natural habitats, introducing new animals and new diseases, not to mention purposely killing certain species for fur, food, medicine or sport.
Luckily, not all of our kind is willing to let the extinction continue. A group of like-minded Australians are striving to keep endangered species alive. What’s more, they are offering the public a glimpse of what life used to be like in centuries gone by, before the settlers arrived, before the biodiversity of the land was sacrificed to make room for civilization.
Australia, particularly South Australia has been regarded as one of the worst areas regarding wildlife preservation.
Dr Tim Flannery - one of Australia's best-known scientists and authors wrote: “Of the sixty mammalian species that have become extinct worldwide over the last five hundred years, twenty are Australian.” It is also predicted that unless swift and decisive action is taken, Australia could lose more species in the next fifty years than the rest of the world has lost in five thousand!
Statistics such as these led one man to set the balance of nature straight once more. He is Dr.John Wamsley.
Wamsley is the founder of Earth Sanctuaries. In 1969 he bought thirty-five acres of land in the Adelaide Hills and by fencing it off from the outside world, began a process of regeneration; converting it back into a natural habitat in which the area’s former inhabitants could thrive.
This sanctuary, officially opened to the public in 1985, was named ‘Warrawong’, derived from local Aboriginal dialect meaning `water on the side of a hill.
This early project developed into the highly successful conservation company Earth Sanctuaries Ltd. which now owns and runs four such reserves around the south-east of Australia.
Each sanctuary has the same goal, to reintroduce endangered wildlife into an environment where they can live, feed and breed unaided, while at the same time remaining safe from the outside influences that so nearly cost them their existence.
It was around 150 years ago that European settlers first arrived on the shores of Australia and began farming the land to grow their own fruits and vegetables. They took over the majority of land for dairy production, clearing away large areas of forest and killing off many species of flora and fauna in the process, uprooting the tightly-knit ecosystem. The main threat to the animals, particularly the small Australian mammals and marsupials, arrived in the shape of domestic livestock and predators such as foxes and cats – newcomers that took over established niches in the food chain, disrupting the original ecological balance.
After acquiring the Warrawong site, John Wamsley set about transforming his new purchase, planting over one hundred thousand native trees, shrubs and ferns. He believed that by providing Australian wildlife with a piece of land, the way it used to be, their diminished numbers would swell. He was right, every species that was introduced to the sanctuary thrived. The most notable successes being three species, the Long-Nosed Potoroo, the Eastern Quoll and the Woylie (Brush-tailed Bettong) which had not inhabited the hills of Adelaide since before the dawn of the twentieth century. Wamsley wanted to give them a home to come back to and he did just that.
Australia is home to a stunningly diverse variety of flora and fauna and has been described as a type of Noah’s Ark, such is its wealth of species. At one time, there were one hundred and forty different species of marsupial living in Australia. Nearly half the country’s birds are indigenous only to Australia, along with ninety-three percent of the nation’s frogs and eighty-nine percent of the reptiles.
The number of rare species native to Australia must account for the frequent reports of Australian animals on the brink of extinction. However, worldwide support for Australia’s endangered species is quite low, especially when compared to the widely publicised plight of the Panda. Even though the number of Panda remaining far exceeded the number of Bridled Nailtail Wallaby still in existence, few people have even heard of the latter, let alone know what they look like!
The Australians themselves do care though and as a result, a fifth Earth Sanctuaries site is currently under development. The second and third sanctuaries to welcome back the wildlife were the Yookamurra (aboriginal word meaning ‘yesterday’) and the Scotia. These are both considerably larger than Warrawong. The Yookamurra covers 3000 acres and the Scotia is reputedly the largest Earth Sanctuary site at the moment. As a result, these sites are able to cope with larger breeds of species and a dense population of inhabitants. It is the company aim to establish a site in each of the eighty habitat regions of Australia and protect the animals that are endemic to each region.
To fulfil their objectives it is necessary for Earth Sanctuaries to provide an environment safe from the dangers that caused the original problem. The fence, erected around all Earth Sanctuary properties is in part, the secret to their success. It was developed by John Wamsley and Proo Geddes between 1981 and 1982 and is the first truly vermin- proof fence ever constructed.
The fence consists of a flat skirt at the bottom preventing animals from burrowing underneath and a heavy gauze mesh about one metre high, making it impossible for dogs or foxes to bite or chew their way through. The upper section is made of a slack mesh so that animals will have difficulty climbing over the fence. To make it even harder for animals to get in, the fence curls outwards at the top. For extra security, a ‘hot wire’ administering a five thousand-volt shock is set up, a short distance from the fence. The shock doesn’t kill the animal, it only stuns it. If a tree falls and destroys a section of the fencing, the current in the ‘hot wire’ will be broken, triggering an alarm. The park rangers will then be able to quickly repair the fence before the animals inside can be affected. The Yookamurra site currently has the longest vermin-proof fence in existence spanning over fourteen kilometres.
In May 2000 Earth Sanctuaries Ltd. floated itself on the stock market. It is to date the only publicly listed company in the world whose primary goal is conservation. Their main objective is to conserve Australian flora and fauna in a commercial environment. It is estimated that the average cost incurred per year by one site alone is over one million Euro. In the financial year 2000-2001 the company saw a decline in their revenue, which led to a delay in the opening of their new site, Little River Earth. Conservation, unfortunately, does not come cheaply!
The good work has still continued nevertheless. The latest breakthrough is that the Mala, the most endangered species of kangaroo with numbers as low as four hundred, has been introduced to the Scotia sanctuary. It is hoped that the Mala population will successfully regain a firm foothold here.
With Earth Sanctuaries Ltd., John Wamsley has already made an impact on the ecosystem of Australia. Since the company’s creation, the sanctuaries have helped some species to actually get off of the ‘endangered’ list. The Woylie, which hadn’t been seen in Southern Australia for one hundred years, now has an estimated country-wide population of twenty thousand. John and his colleagues came a little too late for some animals, but they are now giving others a fighting chance to breed and thrive while at the same time giving people a chance to see these animals in their own habitat.