We need to be protecting those wild populations, those remnant wild populations. They need to be given special protection so we don't just end up with animals just behind fences.
Australians love cuddling up to a koala, and spotting a bilby or platypus in the wild. But our sunburnt country has borne witness to the disappearance of scores of native species over the past hundred years – earning us the nickname ‘extinction central’. From the golden bandicoots in the Strzelecki Desert to the platypuses in the Royal National Park, can we save our endangered species through rewilding?
Hear from UNSW Sydney’s Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science, Professor Richard Kingsford, Principal Ecologist for the Wild Deserts project Dr Rebecca West, Scientia Fellow and Associate Professor Katherine Moseby and Lead Researcher for the Platypus Conservation Initiative Dr Gilad Bino, for a lively panel discussion chaired by ABC journalist Ann Jones as they emphasise the urgency to break free from the confines of traditional conservation approaches to landcare, and highlight the power of rewilding our fragile ecosystems – all before it’s too late.
Presented by the UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Science as a part of National Science Week.
UNSW Centre for Ideas: UNSW Centre for Ideas.
Ann Jones: Hello, everyone. Good evening. My name is Ann Jones and welcome to tonight's event, which is called Rewilding, presented by the University of New South Wales Centre for Ideas and the University of New South Wales Science Department as a part of National Science Week. Hands up science nerds. Oh yeah. Oh yeah, and the rest of you giggled. So I think you're all science nerds.
My name is Ann and I'm a bit of a nature nerd. Hopefully, you're already subscribed to the podcast that I make for the ABC that's called (SIGHS HEAVILY) apologies. It's called What the Duck. And we're in the throes of making a new season of that right now. I just finished editing a very special little program, which is all about how Johnny Cash almost caused the extinction of a whole species of vulture with a burning ring of fire. So if you want to find that, that's What the Duck. And also on the TV tomorrow night for special Science Week content for ABC Catalyst.
Now important things. We first would like to acknowledge the Bidjigal people who are the traditional owners and custodians of this land. I would like to pay my respects and the respects of everybody here to the Elders, both past and present, and extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are here with us tonight. Thank you for coming along.
Now, there's nothing quite like the thrill of seeing a rare species of animal. And for me, there's nothing quite like the sense of peace that I get from knowing that somewhere out there there's a bilby being a bilby, right? I love looking through a field guide and knowing that these animals exist. But there is one list of Australian fauna that I wish didn't exist and that is the extinction list. And we've got a bit of a reputation worldwide of being extinction central here in Australia. So, what are we to do with that information? Well, from golden bandicoots in the Strzelecki Desert to platypuses in or is it platypuses? See, I always get a letter from the audience. If I say platypi or platypuses, there's always people that complain. In the Royal National Park, can we save our endangered species through rewilding?
So tonight, we've got an expert panel here to fight it out. So in our fight for life against extinction tonight, representing the platypus ding, ding, ding, we have Gilad Bino, now a senior lecturer at the Centre for Ecosystem Science and the Faculty of Science here at UNSW. Lead researcher, co-founder of the Platypus Conservation Initiative. You've always loved animals. So, I read on the internet when I was snooping. Grew up in Israel, where you spend a lot of time outdoors and you even volunteered as a kid at the zoo. And that early passion has transformed into a research career, trying to make well-informed management decisions and making, I suppose, studies of animals in space. And I'm not talking intergalactic space here, that would be cool. We're talking about which bits of the environment that animals use and when. Rebecca West is with us as well. You're gonna be fighting tonight for the golden bandicoot and the crested, ah, crest-tailed mulgara, two cuties among all the other creatures at the Wild Desert Project where you are principal ecologist and you specialise, this is my understanding anyway, in setting up really solid ways to not just reintroduce one species but to reintroduce multiple species that all wanna be good neighbours with each other.
So there's also another specialisation you have, and that's what's beyond the fence. What's the next step beyond fenced areas? So we're gonna talk about that tonight. Katherine Moseby is here. You are fighting for the bilby and the greater stick-nest rat.
Katherine Moseby: Tough one.
Richard Kingsford: That's right. Tough one.
Ann Jones: They are not. They're little architects. You're an ARC future fellow with the Centre for Ecosystem Science right here at UNSW. You also live in arid Australia. Do you? Nice. That's good. Co-founder of several important safe haven projects, including Arid Recovery out near Roxby Downs, which was the first and for a very long time the only place that I saw a bilby, which was very special, unless you count the time that I accidentally did a bush wave right on top of an endangered bilby burrow in WA. But that is another story for another time, perhaps. And finally, representing the ecosystem as a whole is Richard Kingsford, director for the Center of Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney, a river ecologist conservation biologist. I mean, I don't really need to introduce him, do I? Do I? Everyone knows Richard, I think. He's worked for government agencies in policy and management involved in all of the projects that we've got represented up here overseeing safe zones. Actually, when I tried to put it together, you've got several thousand kilometres of safe, square kilometres of safe zones that you are taking care of, Richard.
No, pressure. And I think that he would be described as a sort of demigod of ecosystem science in Australia, if not in the universe as a whole. And actually, are you everyone's boss?
Richard Kingsford: It's time for me to leave.
Ann Jones: Are you everyone's boss that's up here except me?
Richard Kingsford: Sort of mentor.
Ann Jones: I think this might double up just in the interests of paperwork. This might double up as your annual review. So...
Richard Kingsford: That's right. I'm watching.
Ann Jones: No. Alright, first of all, let's set a definition. Rewilding, I'm gonna throw it to you, Richard. What is it?
Richard Kingsford: Yeah, well, I guess it's really about letting nature repair, do its own thing. So we've interfered a lot. So you can think of a river system in North America, taking out a dam allows that river to go its normal way, the fish to migrate up the river system. And or you could imagine putting in a top predator into an ecosystem so that you reestablish the food webs. And, you know, even, as you mentioned, the Wild Deserts project that we do with in partnership with New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife and Ecological Horizons, in that one, you know, the focus is seven new species into Sturt National Park, but it's really about what happens to that whole ecosystem when you put those animals back into that system and how they repair the landscape, how they restore the functionality of it. And it was it was really about the 1990s that, you know, the idea of rewilding got going with Michael Sewell and... I'm trying to remember his name... Reed Noss, I think. Anyway, they essentially talked about three C's, core wildlife areas, corridors and carnivores.
So there has been a bit of this sort of focus on carnivores, but really rewilding can be plants, it can be invertebrates, it can be a whole range of different things.
Ann Jones: Yeah, 'cause those sort of early examples were things like wolves and things where they.
Richard Kingsford: Yeah, wolves in Yellowstone in the 1990s and just how that sort of changed all of the vegetation and even had an effect on the beavers that were relying on the willows along the river system for their, you know, making their habitat. So we have this notion that these sort of top predators, even one species, can change a whole group of interactions plus the environment itself.
Ann Jones: So, Katherine, how is that, because that's sort of what the whole world probably thinks of as rewilding, is the Australian example of rewilding different from that?
Katherine Moseby: Yeah, it's different in quite a few ways. So rewilding is so we talk about reintroductions in Australia and that seems to be a single species focus. So you're reintroducing a bilby, rewilding is more about trying to put a species in that's gonna kick start ecological processes and have a trickle-down effect through the whole ecosystem. So that could be in North America like a wolf, but in Australia, we have a lot of smaller animals that do very similar things. So like bilbies and bandicoots, things that dig and turn over the soil and that can have a much bigger benefit on the ecosystem than just reintroducing the species themselves. But I guess the other big thing in Australia is we have a lot of introduced species, so we have a lot of plants and animals, over a thousand introduced plants and animals in Australia. So if we just let nature have the time and space, it's not gonna heal itself. Like there's too, we've done too much damage to it already. So we've, we have to actively manage a lot more intensively in Australia.
And Australia also had a history of people being involved in rewilding because First Nations people manage this country through fire, through hunting, through a whole range of things. So we need a lot of people to be involved in rewilding in Australia and we need to do it in a lot more intensive way than in the other parts of the world.
Ann Jones: So you've brought up the first thing that sets off a little alarm bell in my head, right? Because it's rewilding. But then you've almost immediately said humans have got to be involved, which doesn't sound very wild at all. It sounds like we might be controlling things. So is this the first paradox of rewilding?
Katherine Moseby: Well, I think we can't rewild without having people involved because of the introduced species like I was saying before. So like feral cats and foxes, we have to control them. So it's just part of rewilding in Australia. And a lot of the things we do in Australia include safe-havens. So we have over 100 island safe havens and 30 mainland safe havens and they're areas that we get rid of all those introduced species and try and reintroduce into those areas. But it's very intensive and very small scale.
Richard Kingsford: I mean, I think the sad part of it, we're in the Anthropocene and so we've done so much damage to everything that for us to actually get back onto a sustainability path, we've actually got to be managing at scale. That means lots of things like these big safe havens, but it also means doing, stop doing the things that are damaging the environment as well.
Ann Jones: So on safe havens then Bec, let's do a cost-benefit analysis. God, no, let's not do that. That sounds horrible.
Rebecca West: It's just what I want to do this evening.
Ann Jones: No. OK, what are the benefits of the safe haven approach?
Rebecca West: Yeah. So, I guess as Katherine mentioned, because of the quantity of introduced species in Australia, and let's talk about our two big top predators, everyone would know about the cats and the foxes. It's actually very hard for us to rewild a lot of our areas without removing those. And as it currently stands, we still do not have a way to get cat and fox numbers down to a level that we can successfully get some of our native species like bilbies and my golden bandicoot, that's my first mention, back into these habitats without actually being able to exclude those animals. And so a lot of places have now built safe havens, which are basically an enormous fence. But these things are expensive. We're talking $30,000 per kilometre for these fences. Then they need ongoing maintenance. Once you've actually built them, you've then got to eradicate the feral species from within them and then maintain that wild deserts even we were able to declare ourselves feral-free in 2019 after building our fences, which was very exciting.
But two years later we had our first cat incursion. And it's a terrifying moment as an ecologist working on a project like that. But it happens. They're not 100% proof to these feral predators. So things are gonna get in every now and then and then you've got to be able to manage that. So there's a lot of costs in running these places, but they're really effective. So if you get rid of those species and return your native species like your crested mulgaras and your golden bandicoots, they're gonna do really, really well in those areas. And that's why they've become very popular because you can establish lots of these different species, you can build up the numbers, you can put them in lots of different areas, but we're still talking sort of small postage stamp areas in relation to the whole country and the area where these animals would have once lived. And that's where there's yeah, there's a lot of cost to doing it like that.
Richard Kingsford: But Bec, I mean, you were just talking about the great advantages for those threatened species, but we've had amazing results for other species that we weren't supposed to be looking after.
Rebecca West: Yeah. Yeah, so what you find when you build these places is that a lot of the resident species that were there already, so things like wild deserts, we have a dusky hopping mouse. That was actually Katherine when she first got out of uni, spent most of her time trying to find populations of this dusky hopping mouse 'cause it was so rare. It was part of a rare rodents project. We have now got them booming. It's hard to not run over them when you're out working at night because they're just running everywhere. They're so abundant now, and they were sitting there just sort of hanging around, but just hanging on by a thread. And then we took away the feral predators. We took away the rabbits and gave them back all of their seeds and boom! Off they go. So, yeah, as Richard says, it can have some great, great benefits to other things.
Ann Jones: I'm seeing the headlines tomorrow. I don't know about anyone else. So, we'll come back and talk more about these sort of enclosed areas 'cause there's so many fascinating things about these. But first of all, I wanted to talk to you, Gilad, about your platypus project, not just yours, but I'm gonna call it yours. You've recently released Platypus back into the Royal National Park. Why put them there in particular?
Gilad Bino: Yeah, good question. So I guess I'll circle around and get to that. So platypuses have quite a wide distribution. Their range all the way from down to Tasmania up north to far north Queensland, and they're in river systems intermixed with a mosaic of land uses semi-urban environments and they're really under quite a strain in terms of the amount of threatening processes that are impacting them. And I get, so for many years I've been studying these platypuses, trying to understand how we're impacting them, filling in our knowledge gaps. And so as we're building up momentum and partnerships and knowledge, we got to the stage where this opportunity arose. And it's obviously the platypus is quite an iconic species. And the Royal National Park is quite an iconic national park, being the oldest in Australia and second oldest in the world. So we know that platypuses used to exist in the Royal National Park. So that was kind of a place where they naturally fit. Platypuses haven't been seen in the park for at least 20 years if not 50.
But it's quite a pristine environment being a national park for such a long time. But so we had started having a close look at then you've got some nice photos there.
Ann Jones: Sorry, I keep on looking up. It's very distracting for me. Sorry.
Gilad Bino: Yeah, so, you know, so we started having a look at the Royal National Park and trying to figure out really, I mean, what are the conditions permissible for platypuses to actually support a thriving population there? And...
Ann Jones: So what's that? That's like water quality, food availability.
Gilad Bino: Quite a lot of things. I mean, it's like the depth profile of the habitat, the riparian vegetation, the stability of the banks, the water quality, availability of food for things like that. There are other threats like invasive red foxes that are quite prevalent in the park as well as deer. And then obviously there's at the top of the catchment, there's Helensburgh, which there's some urban runoff as well as a coal mine at the upper reaches. So we had a really close look and conditions seem to be quite favourable and we really had to make this like leap of faith in a sense. But we, you know, we had all the numbers lined up in terms of like the successful reintroduction. Personally, it was quite a quite an emotional process as well. So now, like, it put me in the space of being very responsible for a number of animals to reintroduce into the park. Yeah, and so we went through this process. There's no captive breeding program, so we had to identify some source populations, wild source populations.
So you had to get familiarised with some populations of where you can actually collect the animals. And I'm happy to say that it's been three months since we reintroduced the platypuses there and they're all still in the park. And so that's really great news for us. And you know, moving into the breeding season, we're really excited. I can keep talking all night, but...
Ann Jones: So, OK, I've got a number of questions, right? A serious one first. Like what, you know, when you actually are translocating animals from one wild location to another, is there a high rate of survival in those animals normally?
Gilad Bino: Platypus or generally?
Ann Jones: Let's answer both, generally.
Gilad Bino: I mean, you can imagine if you've anyone in the crowd here, you pluck them up and throw them in a very foreign city, different language, different environment. It would be quite a stressful event. So with animals, yes, we know that it could be quite stressful for animals. From our understanding, some animals can handle it quite well, others not so well. Specifically for platypuses, they seem to handle quite well. They've been flown to San Diego successfully. They've been introduced to Kangaroo Island. They've been, there's been one successful reintroduction in the past. We've rescued some platypuses at the height of the drought in 2019. So we know that they can handle like, the handling and interruptions and probably like establishment of new habitats. Yeah.
Ann Jones: You've released about ten at the moment, what happens if we...
Richard Kingsford: Exactly ten.
Ann Jones: Exactly ten, exactly.
Richard Kingsford: Ten and a half.
Ann Jones: We are in Science Week. Let me be. It's 10.33.
Richard Kingsford: That's right.
Ann Jones: OK, I pity you guys in staff meetings, but...You've released exactly ten. What happens if you get to, not you get to, if they get to the breeding season and they actually don't find each other very sexy, what happens then? Are you just gonna have ten platypus that...?
Gilad Bino: Yeah, so we've got a way now we're continuously monitoring them. So we've got these listening stations spread out throughout the rivers there and we're monitoring their movements around. So yeah, there was, with the animals usually when you translocate them, they seem to like try and figure out what's going on. They do long movements trying to familiarise themselves with the new environment. And so we saw that with the platypuses, there were all over the place, but they seem to be settling in. And so for us now, it's really just crossing our fingers and hoping that they find each other. Males start during this season to start becoming territorial, picking the best site that access to females and resources, so.
Ann Jones: Is it like you know, do they go up to a ridge line and howl like a wolf? Like, how do they find each other?
Gilad Bino: It's a good question. It's hard for us to know, to be honest. It might be olfactory in terms of like, you know, some smell in the water. I can talk about platypus poo if you want, but...
Ann Jones: We'll save that for later.
Rebecca West: Are they known to be fussy like for mate selection?
Gilad Bino: So captive breeding of platypuses is highly unsuccessful. Like it's really difficult and the conditions have definitely been far from optimal. And it's kind of a female controlled courtship and breeding. Yeah. So they'll avoid the males. And then when they if they choose and when the time is right, then they'll copulate. So but it's platypuses, you know, they're so cryptic and that's been really a big issue with conserving platypuses, is trying to get a handle of what an impact we've had on platypuses is being a real issue. But also trying to understand what's going on, what's their interactions, like we really don't know. There's a lot to learn.
Ann Jones: So, Richard, because you're the head honcho and involved across, now because you're involved across all of these projects, why is it that in this case you've decided to do a translocation into a non-fenced area and in other cases a fenced area?
Richard Kingsford: Well, I mean, the most important thing to think about is what is the threat? And so the threat really for platypus is the not so healthy river system. So we thought probably they went extinct in Royal because of foxes, cats maybe, and plus urbanisation, chemical spills, a lot of that. Now the water quality is pretty good. And then when you think about the Wild Deserts Project or the reintroduction of those locally extinct mammals, it's all about cats and foxes. So you need a safe haven to actually keep them out 'cause, you know, we'll talk a bit about it later. But trying to get them beyond the fence is really problematic because we have such efficient predators in cats and foxes. That's problematic. So when you think about translocations, it's really about what are the threats for the particular organism? If you're doing plants, for example, it might be temperature or something like that. And then what does that actually mean for whether you're gonna be successful or not? So it's about the specifics of the individual species having enough and being able to have enough of the right sort of environment for them to thrive and hopefully reproduce and recruit and all of those things that are important.
And I think what's really interesting in this translocation, I mean, I've been involved as a conservation biologist for a long time, but it's really exciting doing this because you're actually putting stuff back in, that's happening. Whereas most of the time I'm telling people what a mess we're making of things. And I think that's why it can capture the public imagination and how you can really understand you're really making an impact. And that's why Gilad said, it was emotional. Putting those platypus in there was really... and it was also great having the Traditional Owners as part of that.
Ann Jones: Bec I wanna ask you about Wild Deserts, because it's a really interesting contrast sort of between these two projects. So can you paint us a picture, right? If you're standing at nighttime on the fence line, paint me a picture about what you can see and hear around you.
Rebecca West: So Wild Deserts, we'll start slightly in the daytime just 'cause at night time you wouldn't be able to see very far. Just so you can imagine it a little better, is that we have rolling red sand dunes. And then in between those are what we call ‘swales’ or flat areas that are really grassy. And so our fence intersects these sand dunes. So at night time, in your spotlight, you're sorta going up over these rises and the light starts to shine out across the swale and you're desperately looking for the little white flash of the bilby tail as it darts through. And we're actually now starting to get population sizes where I can almost guarantee, put some money on that people are gonna get to see something if they come out and spotlight, which is fantastic. But yeah, you can often also hear all sorts of rustles. You might see a boobook owl fly past or you see a bearded dragon that's still just hanging onto the fence from his day of basking because maybe he decided it was still not quite cool enough to go to bed.
So it's a, yeah, a fascinating world out there. We have a student at the moment who's actually working on a really big python that we got out there, a woma python. And so if you're out doing nocturnal work in the summer, you're actually likely to come across these huge pythons that are just out for their nights hunting. So, yeah, it can be really variable, but all of it to me is exceptionally exciting.
Ann Jones: Well, I think these areas, having been to a couple now, are genuinely magic.
Rebecca West: Yeah, and it's a bit like sort of if you could time travel, which we haven't quite worked out how well some people may argue they have, but I haven't worked out how to do it. It's like going back in time to what it might have been like way back when First Nations people were out there and managing that land. So we're on Wangkumara / Malyangapa land there and their people to walk that Country, they would have probably seen those things out and about at night. So it's quite a special experience to get to do that.
Ann Jones: Alright, I'm gonna throw you a slightly curly one: is that the aim? Is the aim to time travel to get it back to what it was?
Rebecca West: It's, for me, yes. It's to get it back to as close as we can. I think the baseline has shifted. And that's, as Richard was saying, we've changed things so much that sometimes it can be hard to even know what it was like. But sometimes also it's just impossible to return to that. But yeah, it is. It's to try and sort of restore all of those different processes and the way that they functioned before we came in and went like this and to get them back to being able to do their own thing.
Richard Kingsford: But it's also about the whole healthy ecosystem. So one thing we haven't really talked about is this issue of overabundant herbivores. And so out in Wild Deserts, we, you know, because there's no top predator in many places in Australia, it means that the kangaroos can build up into these huge numbers and then you have this sort of devastating droughts. And, you know, one of the things, one of my big KPIs was to try and keep Bec and Reece out there when there were no animals there. We were building fences and there were dead kangaroos everywhere. And a lot of them would come into Bec and Reece's front yard and die during that drought just because they build up into such large numbers and there's no real control. So when you get a bust in the season, that's what happens is widespread death.
Ann Jones: He really does sound like a magical boss.
Richard Kingsford: It was hard work.
Rebecca West: It took a lot of convincing. I think watching something starve to death or these kangaroos would just fall over on the ground 'cause they're just so weak, they had no food, they've got no water, they would, shouldn't be too graphic, maybe, but, they would get their eyes pecked out by crows while they're still alive. Like, that's no way to die. And so I think something that us as a team really wanna try and work out is how you try and manage it so you don't end up in that situation. There needs to be a way to try and move kangaroos on or actually have some sort of culling program so that they get a humane death rather than having to die like that. It was awful to watch.
Ann Jones: It's like those, you know, every single change we make to an environment has these roll on impacts that you might not expect. And that sounded like a really traumatic one. But talk to me briefly about what the species are that the aim is to have in that safe zone for a start. And what your success has actually been with that because it's a relatively new safe zone that you've got.
Rebecca West: It is, yeah. So our first release was only in 2020. So it's a relatively new. Katherine, obviously our recovery has been running for 25 years. But yeah, Wild Deserts we've established now we have the bilby, we have the crest-tailed mulgara, the golden bandicoot and the Shark Bay bandicoot. And unlike Gilad's platypuses, none of them are fussy, so they're quite happy to have whoever they can take. So we have had some excellent reproductive outputs in our first few years and we've got yeah, sort of.
Richard Kingsford: In fact, the mulgaras are a challenge to us.
Rebecca West: We've got a little problem with a few too many mulgaras. We've been a little too successful. It's probably another story.
Richard Kingsford: They're a little predator, a fearsome little predator.
Rebecca West: Yes, so they're sort of throwing their weight around now, but so we've been calling them ‘Mulgara Mafia’, you know, that sort of really getting into it. But yeah, so they're doing really well. And we've got sort of bilbies that are almost getting to the stage now where they're starting to try to get themselves out beyond the fence. I think they've decided it's a bit too full inside, which is a fantastic outcome to have. So they're prolific breeders.
Ann Jones: That's interesting. So they sort of I mean, that drive to sort of spread out actually is occurring. Have you seen that happen at Arid Lands as well, which is near Roxby Downs.
Katherine Moseby: Yeah, so I guess there's the dark side of rewilding which is the negative effects of it. So having a boundary fence around things can stop things from dispersing out so you can get overpopulation within them, particularly macropods. So things like bettongs can build up to really unsustainable levels and then they can have impacts on the other species in there. So it's because it's a bounded area, you've gotta manage it somehow. So you've either gotta let those animals out or what we're doing is trying to release native predators in there. So we've released western quolls into arid recovery to see if they can keep the numbers down and try and get that whole trophic level released.
But again, that's very difficult in a confined area. So the biggest downfall I think with safe havens is a very successful. And that's why the numbers we've now got over 30 mainland safe havens. But the long term viability of them is still under question because it is such a small area that you're trying to intensively manage.
So ideally, we wanna get them out beyond the fence and into these broader landscapes.
Ann Jones: Alright, and do we have case studies or plans to do this, getting them, you know, starting off building that population and then helping them spread into unfenced areas?
Katherine Moseby: Yeah, so we have two streams of releases, reintroductions in Australia. We have the very successful safe haven ones where we'd have probably success around 90%. And then we have the releases outside safe havens where the success is probably more like about 10%. So we really haven't got there yet with releases outside of fences. So there's the eastern bettong example in the East Coast that failed due to foxes, there's a whole lot of releases in Western Australia that fail due to cats and foxes.
We tried to release outside Arid Recovery which failed due to cats and foxes. I mean, one of the worst times in my career was radio tracking a bilby and finding its’ head bitten off by a feral cat and then looking at its pouch, and the pouch young was still alive inside the pouch. So it only just been killed when I got there, sort of five minutes after it had been killed. So, you know, as ecologists, it's really quite upsetting when things like that happen. So but what we need to do better is actually learn from those mistakes.
So we still going out there putting animals outside fences, but we're not actually learning about what thresholds we need for cat and fox control in order for them to be successful. So we just keep seeing sort of the same mistakes happening outside fences and we really need to start getting better at monitoring the cat and fox numbers and getting it down to sort of certain thresholds and also preparing our animals for release outside fences. 'Cause you put an animal inside a fence reserve without predators and it loses its nous and it loses its anti-predator skills. And then we throw them outside the fences and we expect them to survive. So that's not gonna happen.
Richard Kingsford: And I think that's our grand experiment which Bec might talk about, which is basically, you know, beyond the fence where we're trying to do those at Wild Deserts, trying to find what those thresholds are for cats and foxes, but also kangaroos in an extremely large area.
Rebecca West: Yeah, and so Katherine and I have been working on this together for the last decade and Katherine had started it before I came along, but I'll talk to it and you can help. So we ran a project at Arid Recovery back in 2014 with the idea that if we're not gonna be able to remove every cat and fox from Australia, maybe we need to turn this on its head and say, well, how can we make our native species work out what a cat and a fox is? So they didn't evolve together, so they don't know what these predators are, they have no hunting strategies that they're not used to.
And like Katherine said, when they've been in a fenced reserve for however many generations, you pop them out there and they've got no hope. So we actually set up a big experiment where we released over 300 burrowing bettongs, which are a macropod, small kangaroo and 50 bilbies into a big paddock. So we're talking 20 square Kilometres, huge area with four feral cats, which seemed slightly odd when Katherine employed me and told me to go and put cats back inside a fence reserve.
Ann Jones: But how did you select the cats?
Rebecca West: It felt weird. We went for large male cats because we actually know from some of Katherine's work that there are some of the cats that tend to have the most damage on these sorts of populations. We fitted them all with satellite collars so that we could then monitor what they were doing. And the really fascinating thing was that a few bettongs and bilbies did die from cat predation, but not all of them. And over time we actually started to see the behaviour in that population change. So they got smarter. They learnt that there were things out there that you needed to be scared of. So we, we did a study where you would radio track them and see how close you could get to them before they ran away. And in the place where they'd never met a cat or a fox before, you could walk up to them and pat them on the head. And it sounds like I'm joking, but I'm not. They would lick your feet, these bettongs, they just wanted to be your friends. But after 18 months of living with cats and having been brought up living with these cats and then they were having their own young, you couldn't see them.
If I went out with my radio tracker at night, I just couldn't get to them. They'd always be keeping that a little bit further ahead of me and running away and running away. And we started to see that they were more vigilant when they were looking for their food because they burrow. So a bettong that had never seen a cat before, if you gave it a bowl of peanut butter oats, it would put its head in, bum in the air, eat it all and then come up for air sort of two hours later. But the cat-exposed bettongs actually started to be a lot more vigilant. They would eat and they would look up and they'd look around, they'd think, ‘Oh, I've got to really keep an eye out for things’. And it was incredible to see. And it happened in a really short space of time, didn't it? So we started to see this change. So we think based on that, that we can make them smarter. We're still working on it.
Katherine Moseby: But we need natural selection to be accelerated so that we can actually see that genetic link and we can actually breed smarter, better, bigger animals that can cope with the new environments in Australia, which is cats and foxes are here to stay. We're not gonna...
Rebecca West: So you thought Richard was the demigod?
Ann Jones: Yeah, I was going to say, wait a second.
Richard Kingsford: Whenever they talk about this, I think of that Monty Python with the rabbit, you know, the carnivorous rabbit that leaps out and maybe we can get bilbies that can start to be predators of cats.
Ann Jones: If not, we can get the merchandise. I'm pretty sure. OK, for a start, I feel like it's like some sort of Karate Kid style training thing. And you need to be calling the cats like Mr Miyagi.
Rebecca West: We did have names for them, but they weren't that good, were they?
Katherine Moseby: They were named after composers, we had Beethoven.
Ann Jones: That's very classy. Have you been doing this long enough to notice whether the young of cat exposed inherit or learn this behaviour?
Katherine Moseby: That's the key question. So we did what was called a common garden experiment, where you take ones that have been exposed and ones that haven't. You put them into the same pen and then you look at their offspring. And what we found is those physical traits that changed have been passed on to the offspring. So there are, I mean, this is obviously a long term project. It's not gonna happen overnight, but I guess it's about thinking outside the box about what we can do to get rewilding happening on a broad scale. And there's other work that's being done that shows animals can learn and get new genetic information quickly. Captive bred animals that we use a lot for releases, I mean, there's so much research that shows within one or two generations in captivity, their brains change, their whole genetics change, their whole behaviour changes. So animals are very used to changing rapidly. And we need to harness that if we can.
Ann Jones: Yeah, it's such a positive way of looking at it as well like that change that can sometimes be framed negatively as in, ‘Oh dear, it's been in a park breeding situation for two generations and it's lost some of its plasticity’.
Richard Kingsford: And so that's why we fenced off the corner of New South Wales.
Ann Jones: Just a corner of New South Wales Richard?
Richard Kingsford: North west corner of New South Wales is now fenced off because it's got a dingo fence on the Queensland border which is leaky, but there's 100 square k's there now, which is our wild training zone. So the idea is that we are going to do this at scale, not the 20 square k's but 100 square k's. So the big challenges for us are to breed enough of some of these species like bilbies, so we can release those, but also bring the cap levels down. And they've really rocketed up like, I mean, we were talking about dusky hopping mice. The cats line up in the national park on the side of the fence waiting for the dusky hopping mouse to come out because there are such high numbers of cats there. But we're already got those numbers quite low, but we've still gotta do some more. And then the kangaroos are the other part of the equation.
Ann Jones: So on the eradication, there's a question from the audience here, how do you ethically eradicate non-native species?
Richard Kingsford: Katherine.
Katherine Moseby: No, thanks.
Richard Kingsford: I'm good at delegating.
Katherine Moseby: Thanks for that question.
Ann Jones: It's part of your performance review.
Katherine Moseby: OK. Here we go. Well, in South Australia and Western Australia, we use a lot of 1080, which is a poison. And I know there's a lot of people that don't like 1080 as a poison, but it's a fluoroacetate which comes from a native plant. So Australia has a lot of plants, particularly in the southern and western parts of Australia that have these like poison peas. They're gastrolobium plants and our native species have built up a tolerance to this poison, but introduced species aren't tolerant to it.
So we can use 1080 fairly safely in the central parts of Australia and the western parts of Australia because we know that our native species aren't gonna be affected. And that's a really important tool to control cats and foxes over large scales. A little bit different on the East Coast. So you can have something like a brushtail possum from Western Australia that might have a tolerance 20 times higher than a brushtail possum on the East Coast. So there is a difference in 1080 tolerance, so you don't necessarily wanna use it everywhere, but that is something that at least at a broad scale, you can use to control cats and foxes.
And without that, we wouldn't have things like yellow-footed rock wallabies in the Flinders Ranges, western quolls in the Flinders Ranges. A whole lot of animals at Mudawwara in Western Australia are saved because of 1080 baiting. So it is a really important tool. It is a divisive subject and a lot of people don't like it, but that is one tool that we use.
Richard Kingsford: And I guess the problem is that there are so many of these predators out there that the normal traditional shooting or trapping is just not effective. You need lots of different tools to do it effectively at scale. And I think there's a lot of discussion about how do we get better at controlling cats and foxes. And that's where there's a lot of opportunity for new ways of doing this as ethically as possible.
Ann Jones: Was the predation something that weighed on you with your platypus project?
Gilad Bino: Yeah, definitely. So as part of our assessment of the Royal National Park, we set out camera traps and to try and quantify the prevalence of foxes in the park. And we know that foxes definitely predate on platypuses and particularly during dry periods. So when platypuses are trying to, I guess in a situation where the river's running low and there's a dry riverbed and platypuses are trying to make their way down to refuges, to deep water holes to endure and survive through droughts, that's when we hear and get reports of a lot of predation on platypuses. So that's definitely a real threat. And so, yeah, so we put camera traps in the park and there were foxes pretty much in every camera trap. So there are definitely like, they're very prevalent in really high numbers. But, you know, as part of this process and platypus being so charismatic and so iconic and everyone really wanting to ensure that this project is successful and giving these platypuses the best chances they have. So the National Parks and Wildlife Services have started fox baiting in the park for the first time.
And so yeah, so that they started before the reintroduction and they'll continue this annually. And so yeah, we're definitely that should definitely bring down the fox numbers in the park and reduce the stress on the animals.
Ann Jones: Question from the audience, Do these platypus have trackers?
Gilad Bino: Yes. So platypuses are quite challenging to study and track. You can't put a collar on a platypus.
Ann Jones: Because it's neck is bigger than its skull.
Gilad Bino: So yeah, obviously the shape is quite problematic. And because of the really the behaviour of platypuses, when they dive and forage with their bill and they build their burrows in amongst roots of trees. And so if you would put a collar on them they would probably get entangled with something and get stuck or drown. So you can't put collars on them. And if we're trying to attach or glue a tag on platypuses, that's not gonna last very long. So that's not gonna give us the amount of knowledge that we need in terms of tracking these animals. And so with these platypuses, we implant them with really tiny trackers.
Ann Jones: Wait, they’re AI platypuses?
Gilad Bino: And so, yeah, so these work on sound frequencies and so they send a pulse in the water and that would give us and really this is the only way, but that would give us information for the next couple of years to really know where they are.
Ann Jones: Oh. Wow.
Richard Kingsford: And we've got receivers up and down the river, so every time they go past one, we know what female number three is doing.
Ann Jones: Pinging the mobile phone tower. Can you send them a message?
Richard Kingsford: It's like. Like it's time to breed.
Ann Jones: Yeah, we want babies. It's rude to ask other people about whether they're ready for procreation. Alright, look, I've got so many questions coming in on the predators. Sorry to bring it up again. New Zealand has the aim of being predator-free by 2050. Do we have similar goals?
Katherine Moseby: Well, we have a war on feral cats that the Threatened Species Commissioner started a few years ago, and I think it's great that New Zealand has such an ambitious target that they're taking it so seriously. I think they're gonna struggle to do it, but I think at least that shows the intent of what they're trying to do and we need to develop a whole lot of new tools to control cats and foxes. And there are new poisons that are being developed that are considered to be more ethical. Things like Papp, which puts an animal just goes to sleep and has a different toxic pathway that is supposed to be more ethical. So we are looking definitely at new poisons, new poison delivery things as well. I mean, at the moment if you go and put baits out, most of them are taken by non-target species. And even if that non-target is high tolerance, it's still taking a bait away. So we've got to look at better ways of delivering control to individual animals that are doing the damage. And some of the research we found was that it was the large males that were particularly doing the damage to a lot of our threatened species and being able to target them better.
So there's definitely more tools. There's things like gene drive that's coming on board. I think a lot of people are excited about that, but it still remains to be seen whether that can happen over such a large scale.
Ann Jones: So what's gene drive?
Katherine Moseby: So it's where you can genetically alter the DNA of an animal so that it can produce only male offspring. And so they're sort of looking at trialling it with things like house mice on islands where they can try and eradicate house mice from islands by all the progeny of this gene drive animals that are released, there will be males and they will interbreed and then their progeny will be males. So there's definitely new tools coming up on the horizon. But there are no silver bullet we need to look at, as Richard said before, a combination of tools.
Richard Kingsford: So, Katherine, you were telling me about how many cats we need in the gene drive to make it work.
Katherine Moseby: You have to produce thousands of cats and release them all...
Richard Kingsford: Across the whole of Australia.
Ann Jones: Yeah, there's a slight flaw.
Richard Kingsford: It's not a silver bullet. I mean, lots of people think, sorry, silver bullet is probably not the right word. But there is no easy answer to this problem and it requires us to think outside the box. It requires us to be really strategic in what we do and not try and do too much and promise too much.
Rebecca West: So, yeah, I guess the answer the question is that that target has not been set for Australia at a federal level or whatever, and it's because it currently is unachievable with the tools that we have.
Katherine Moseby: But the Federal Government has got priority sites where they were trying to eradicate cats, Priority islands, Kangaroo Island is one of them. Bruny Island in Tasmania is one of them. So they have priority sites, Christmas Island, that they are trying to eradicate cats from to create more safe havens, but not sort of...
Rebecca West: The whole thing.
Katherine Moseby: Not the whole thing. Yeah.
Ann Jones: So what's the go with a lot of the fenced areas sort of being arid zones? Why don't we have fenced areas in the rainforest? Do we? Right. I just said that really confidently. And then realized. I had nothing to back it up.
Richard Kingsford: Certainly in New South Wales, there are plans to have more in the Eastern Great Dividing Range. There are some challenges, more bigger challenges in terms of particularly things that washing away fences is a big issue. So anywhere that you've got gullies or rivers you can't deal with, say a big flood that might knock your fence down for a couple of days, that gives a whole lot of problems to you about animals getting out that you don't want to get out and animals getting in that you don't want to get in. So that's probably one of the biggest challenges. And also in the middle of a rainforest, you've also got a whole lot of issues about trees falling on fences as well.
Rebecca West: And I think also a lot of the extinctions of our native mammals have been in arid and semi-arid areas, that's where a lot of the species went from. So there's been a focus, I guess, to return those to those areas in large numbers.
Ann Jones: I thought the answer was going to be something like, you know, they made a whole heap of koala parks in Victoria many moons, decades, like 100 years ago. And the koalas just kept on climbing trees and escaping over the fence because there's trees there, basically.
Richard Kingsford: That's true. Absolutely.
Ann Jones: It's hard to keep things in.
Richard Kingsford: Yeah, absolutely. True.
Ann Jones: OK. There's heaps of questions coming in and we will soon have the microphones out if you don't have your mobile phone here or you don't wanna use it, I understand. So what makes these safe haven zones different from being a glorified zoo?
Katherine Moseby: Yeah, well, we don't feed the animals. We don't provide them with veterinary care. We don't provide them with free water. So they basically on their own when they're in there. So that's a that's a big distinction. There is actually a definition of what constitutes a zoo and what doesn't, and that is being able to provide intensive care like veterinary care and things like that.
Rebecca West: And they often manage or zoo institutions will manage breeding. So they're putting certain individuals with certain individuals, whereas these guys are wild in that sense that they're not constrained in their reproductive choices.
Katherine Moseby: That's not to say we don't have to intervene sometimes because, you know, with climate change and droughts and fire. If you stood by that last massive drought in 2019, we ended up having to provide some supplementary water for some of our animals. Otherwise, the whole population would have gone extinct. And because it's a confined area, you can't normally in the arid zone, populations would go extinct and then they would recolonise from other parts of the arid zone. But you've got these little, like I said before, before postage stamps that don't have any way of getting immigration from other areas. So you either lose the animals or you have to intervene at some point.
Richard Kingsford: And I guess the other thing is, if you think of bilbies in a zoo apart from Western Plains Zoo, that's got quite a big enclosure, these safe havens are a lot bigger. So you're hoping that those natural breeding and recruitment and food resources are all gonna do their own thing without you having to do anything, as Katherine was saying. But I also think that's part of the challenge is in some respects they are a bit like a zoo because they're highly managed and that's where you really do want to think about how do we get beyond the fences and and that whole discussion we had about how do we... I'd like to think it'd be great to get these animals to take back the arid zone, the deserts again, if they were smart enough and we were better at controlling introduced predators.
Ann Jones: Now, I was wondering if that also fed into that whole me asking that silly question about, Why don't we have fenced areas in rainforests? Because the other thing is, is you've got to have areas that are actually able to be released into or else why have you got the zone safe zone in the first place? You're just breeding a population that has nowhere to go. So there are still wild, arid areas. There's less area of rainforest to actually release back into.
Richard Kingsford: Yeah, we do. Yeah. I mean, let's part of the difference in terms of big picture conservation, although we've had lots of introduced species in the rangelands or arid zone, we haven't cleared the land, we haven't ploughed the land, we haven't built cities on it and we generally haven't stuffed up the rivers with large dams and taken water out. So you've got quite a lot of those processes still in place that can essentially support the sort of animals that you want to put back into these landscapes.
Ann Jones: I know that you're all gonna be very happy to have the next question from the audience, which is what's the role of apex predators, e.g the dingo in enclosed areas like wild desert, for example? Because they do seem to be excluded from these fenced areas?
Rebecca West: Yeah, so where the Wild Deserts project is, we actually sit right below the dog fence. So the dog fence as, many of you all know was built to exclude dingoes from the sheep country. So where we are, dingoes are excluded. We have a role that we have to control them in the national park because we are south of the fence. So that's a legal obligation that we have to do that. And I think for you know, as Katherine was saying earlier, some of these rewilding projects are about returning that apex predator to try and trigger all of these trophic cascades. That's not something that we are able to do at Wild Deserts because of where we currently sit below the dog fence. And I think for as long as everyone wants to eat lamb and wear wool and have a wool industry or a sheep industry in Australia, it's gonna be a very challenging issue in terms of trying to use the dingo to to create rewilding across all of Australia. It's something I think we're going to have to try and find a different way to get around.
Katherine Moseby: But I think there is definitely opportunities to do that above the dog fence because the dingo fence is 5,500km, the longest manmade structure in the world. And there's a lot of country north of the dingo fence. But the dingoes are still controlled in most areas north of the fence through poison baiting or through farmers shooting them, that sort of thing. So there's definitely potential to get dingoes involved in rewilding in those areas north of the fence. And indeed, a lot of those indigenous-managed rewilding areas, dingoes are a really important component of those projects.
Richard Kinsgford: And dingoes are also, they don't like cats and foxes much. So not only are they doing a job on those herbivores, overabundant herbivores, but they're not happy if they come across them. Or should I say the fox and cat don't get very happy once they get...
Rebecca West: And I think that's why we do have wild populations of bilbies, for example, up in Queensland where they're still there north of the dog fence for that reason. So...
Ann Jones: Because wasn't there a study that showed that there was more dusky hopping mice where there were dingoes because they were controlling the cat population?
Katherine Moseby: That's the case with quite a few of our native species that they're still extant north of the dog fence.
Ann Jones: So but. You know, OK, so taking away the complexity of the situation, in theory, could dingoes reintroduced south of the fence and produce the trophic cascade that you were describing? And I think we started off with almost it's like, reintroduce the predator and all of the other things flow on below. Is like theoretically that possible?
Katherine Moseby: Totally. So there's two universes either side of the dog fence. South of the fence, we've got overabundant kangaroos, we've got goats. We have a lot of feral herbivores in really high numbers. We also have a lot of foxes down there north of the fence. You very rarely get high numbers of kangaroos or emus or, so they're very good at controlling those large herbivores and those and those feral-introduced herbivores as well.
The jury's still a little bit out on the cat and fox. Some people really believe that they have control cats and foxes and some people think they don't. In arid areas where you don't have many trees and where cats and foxes can't hide, dingoes are very good at finding and killing cats and foxes. So I think it probably varies a lot on the habitat as to what effect the dingo has. So it's sort of like a case-by-case basis, but they definitely have... they trigger ecological cascades in arid zone systems.
Rebecca West: And I think you'd still you'd still need to translocate some of the species that had long gone. So there's only going to be a certain number of species that could just magically come back on their own because they've got to have a population nearby. So if you were really gonna do it, there'd be intense involvement for translocation as well.
Ann Jones: This is a slight follow-up question because it deals in part with farming. There's a couple of questions actually, from the audience. One of them says that in the UK, overseas, particularly the UK, often rewilding conversations are positioned in opposition to farmers. Are there avenues for a more collaborative approach in Australia? And there was another question that's on a similar vein, How can we manage the needs of the expanding human population, particularly in terms of food production and the need to repair these ecosystems? So these are big questions about collaboration and population going forward.
Richard Kingsford: I think on the first one, collaboration does happen a lot in and there are lots of great conservation farmers out there. It's more of a challenge in terms of what's the interaction. If you've got sheep, you're gonna have trouble with dingoes. And so the large parts of Queensland people often just have cattle because cattle can do okay with with dingoes generally. And I know at least one farmer up there who would argue that actually, it's better to have dingoes there and not control them because they have a fairly stable structure in their group. If you go in there and control them, all the teenagers get out of control and start damaging everything in terms of livestock. So in terms of what do we do with all this land and how do we feed a growing population and not just the growing population, we all humans want the quality of life that we want that we have here. And that's a big challenge. And I can't, when people ask me this, I can only really can think of one thing, and that is we need to grow more food in our cities.
So we actually need to think about farming in our cities a lot more because I don't think we should just be going on and clearing more of the Amazon or clearing more of the Lake Eyre Basin or anything like that. We need to hang on to what we've got left. In fact, nearly all countries agreed under the Biodiversity Convention, the Convention on Biological Diversity, to have what they call 30 by 30, which is to have 30% of the planet protected by 2030. Huge ask at the moment in Australia. Well, in New South Wales I think we've got 10 to 15% in reserve. So it means you've got to collaborate with farmers, you've got to actually think about how do we do that? And I think then we've got things like carbon credits and biodiversity credits, which could also play a huge part in actually conserving these environments. And we gotta use less. Sorry, that's the other thing. I mean, you know, fast fashion and stuff like that. We just gotta use less.
Ann Jones: There's a question here that sort of relates and I actually just love the question and I wanna know the answer. So nice question. Whoever Anonymous is, many gardens, parks and even university campuses like UNSW around Australia have lots of lawn. Have you got tips on how to rewild these areas? It's a good idea. You could also farm those areas.
Richard Kingsford: Excellent question. I mean, I do think you look at all of the verges around the cities. Wherever you plant native species, you'll start getting them in. And one of the success stories I think is we've got many more birds, native bird species coming into our cities because we've been planting banksias and grevilleas and all those sorts of things. And I do think even Centennial Park has gone through a stage where it's starting to revegetate not just trees, but bushes around the edges, and you're starting to see more wrens and things around. But maybe we should be also putting cotton on the roofs of these.
Rebecca West: That's one of Richard's new ideas.
Ann Jones: Well, yeah, I don't know do you have the time for a whole other research center, urban development or something? There's a couple of questions here that relate to some of the sort of more political and collaborative aspects. And I had down here to speak with you Gilad about that because I know that it was a collaborative sort of effort. Well, it is a collaborative effort. How has that been? How have you managed to get all of these separate parties on board for your platypus releases?
Gilad Bino: Yeah. So, I mean, it's not difficult to excite people about platypuses. And when you have Richard on board. So that's, you know, it makes things even more simpler. No, but it is about working for a very long time to promote the conservation of an iconic species. And I guess interacting with these partners over a very long time and slowly gaining confidence with each other and creating a really productive working environment and then coming together towards a shared vision about seeing platypuses thrive across their range. And so really we've got the centre has a plethora of collaborations with i Zoo on many facets, so that's quite for the centre. It's quite a natural partnership for us and also for me starting right after the bushfires in 2019, there was quite a flurry of trying to understand the impact of the bushfires. And so WWF, that's where we started working together and looking at the impacts of the bushfires on platypuses specifically. I went over to Kangaroo Island where half of the island was burnt.
And so trying to work out the situation over there and in other places in New South Wales. So yeah, those partnerships really thrived through ongoing collaborations, Yeah.
Ann Jones: It's like an interesting thing, isn't it, being a scientist? Because you'd probably, when you start off and you've got your rose-coloured young scientist glasses on, you probably don't expect you're gonna have that many political meetings. But actually, it's gonna be a lot of that, especially on projects like this. There's also a couple of questions about how people could get involved. Are there citizen science aspects or volunteer roles at areas like wild deserts around?
Rebecca West: Yeah. You wanna talk to your citizen science first?
Gilad Bino: Yeah. I mean, citizen science, the term itself is I find it quite restrictive. I mean, it's not like, I guess in terms of the ways in which the public can engage with conservation restoration and rewilding is quite diverse and it's about and it encompasses also, whereas with the project of trying to get the animals to learn about, you know, avoiding predators, in many cases specifically for the platypus realm, I guess in terms of like where platypuses occur, it's in amongst people, farmers. So it's a lot about also teaching people about the value of freshwater systems and platypuses and wanting to care. And so I guess in terms of the way it's about fostering a sense of stewardship about a country, it's about really caring and understanding how we can, how we're interacting and how we're impacting the systems and the natural environment around us. So in terms of how people can support conservation, it's through I mean, citizen science. When I think about citizen science, it's about helping us better understand.
So monitoring, learning where animals occur, if there are changes, trends over time with a wide-ranging species like the platypus, like it's quite hard to get a handle over things. But it does extend beyond that in terms of also people can help us engage with their local communities and be champions in their respective areas. And so there's a whole range of different ways and opportunities where people can interact and help. And we always welcome volunteers to join us. And, you know, studying platypuses. Yeah.
Ann Jones: Yeah.
Rebecca West: Well, and I think for, for Wild Deserts, that's something that we've been using over the last few years to get people involved is volunteers. So we're a long way from Sydney. In fact, we're as far as you can go and still be in New South Wales. So there's a commitment to come out to us, but it's definitely worth it. And we have trapping surveys and a lot of people come and get involved that way and join us. But you know, as Gilad said, it's also about people being able to talk about it. So everyone here in the audience tonight who's now learnt a whole heap of things about these different projects and being able to take those and share them with people that you know and yeah, I know Wild Deserts.
I'm gonna do a cross-promotion here which might be a bit cheeky, but we have, I'm part of the Threatened Species Bake Off, which we run every year. So I talked to the Threatened Species Commissioner into this seven years ago. And so we now run it. We try and get people to actually host a morning tea, bake a cake in the shape of a threatened species.
So no baking of threatened species, but you're baking a cake or a dessert. And this year's theme is actually ‘loving the unknown and the unlovable’.
So we're trying to raise the profile of some of these threatened species that might be considered to be a little bit ugly or slightly quirky no one really knows about. So you know, there's things like that out here that people who are based in the city and might not be able to track all the way out to wild deserts can still participate in and sort of raise that threatened species profile and create that engagement.
Ann Jones: OK. On the cute and cuddly, right? You've brought it up. I'm gonna go there. There is a question here from the audience as well about plants and whether they should be included in these enclosed areas. But I also had written down here, what about reptiles like I mean, what is going on? Why is it that we're always focusing on the mammals, you guys?
Richard Kingsford: And birds sometimes too. Birds and mammals are a bit higher.
Rebecca West: I talked about one of my pythons.
Ann Jones: Plus the python. No like so, you know, like why is it that...
Katherine Moseby: Reptiles have done better than other species.
Richard Kingsford: That's right.
Katherine Moseby: There's less threatened reptiles, there are threatened reptiles, but there's less of them than mammals. We've got 34 extinct mammals and of the 100, there's a couple of hundred species on the threatened list. And, you know, there's not as many reptiles on there as there are mammals and birds. But there are plans to do safe havens for some reptile species like the Great Desert skink is one of them that looks like it's gonna go ahead.
Ann Jones: Is that the little guy that's like they live in like little community groups and they have like a little burrow systems...
Katherine Moseby: Latrine systems.
Ann Jones: Latrine.
Katherine Moseby: That's right. Yeah.
Ann Jones: Where they go to do their business and...
Katherine Moseby: They're very threatened by cats and foxes as well. So, and plants too. I mean, quite a lot of plants are released into enclosures because of overgrazing from herbivores and things. So there is rewilding projects going on with plants. They just don't get as much publicity a lot of the time 'cause they're not quite as sexy as bilbies.
Ann Jones: I don't know. You know, a lot of people have plant tattoos and stuff. I reckon they are pretty sexy these days. You know...
Katherine Moseby: Orchid. There's a lot of Orchid people.
Ann Jones: I just wish I could download your brain because every stupid question I have, you've got an answer for it. I just wanna download into my being. OK. We've got so many good questions. There's quite a few here that are on a theme of genetic diversity in enclosed areas and reintroduced populations. So starting on the platies, like you've got ten there at the moment, is there, are there plans to reintroduce more so that you've got a good genetic flow?
Gilad Bino: Yeah. So genetics are really important in terms of the long term viability of any population. And there are quite a few instances for specifically with platypuses there, they've gone through quite a genetic bottleneck and there are some areas where that's a concern. And I guess with the issues about platypuses and their distribution across the landscape, maintaining genetic diversity and kind of assuming the role of the natural processes of animals moving and colonizing recolonizing and also improving the diversity of genetics between populations is something that we're gonna have to take, get a good handle of. And so with the platypuses of the Royal National Park, ten animals is definitely not enough. And so we're kind of taking a staged approach. We're having a close look at these animals. And over the next couple of years, if they're successfully established their breeding, it looks like the park is actually a place where platypuses can thrive, then yes, we're gonna move into introducing a few more.
Yeah and making sure that, yeah, they're there for a very long time.
Richard Kingsford: But also sort of thinking about where those ten platypuses came from. They came from different places. So trying to maximize that genetics at the beginning. And that's a lot of well, I mean Bec and Katherine know a lot more about it. But part of putting in a translocation plan and getting permissions to do this, you have to go through due process about genetics.
Rebecca West: And I'm gonna tell you a story about a bilby called Bosworth. So as Richard said, when you write the translocation plan, you have to say how you're gonna maximize your genetic diversity. And this gets scrutinized by a whole heap of reviewers. And so a lot of us, you know, we say we're gonna try and get as many individuals as we can from really different populations as genetically different as they are. And you put them all together 'cause that's gonna give you your best genetic diversity. And so we did that with the bilbies at Wild Desert. So we took them from Taronga Zoo where they deliberately breed them to be as genetically diverse as possible. We also took them from Thistle Island and Arid Recovery and we put them all in together. Well, it turns out that your best-laid plans can get scuppered by like the Super Daddy bilby called Bosworth. So our PhD student, Bree, who's here this evening, she's helping me look after my six-month-old. So thank you to Bree. But, yeah, she's actually found that despite our best efforts, Bosworth basically sired most of the young in the paddock.
So, yeah, getting them from, he was the biggest and he was the daddy. So it just depends on who you actually select, turns out.
Katherine Moseby: But he wasn't the most attractive.
Ann Jones: Wait, so have you got a whole heap of ugly bilby babies?
Katherine Moseby: Yeah. Pretty much. So the big males, when they get over two kilos, they get a really big sort of thick football-like head. So they're not.
Ann Jones: That's really sexy if you're a female bilby, though.
Katherine Moseby: Perhaps.
Richard Kingsford: Must be.
Ann Jones: Sexy stuff. Alright. We've got we've got a rapid-fire round of questions, everybody, 'cause I wanna get through some more. And we are basically out of time. But OK, just to get through rapid fire. How do we make sure that people don't get the idea that having these enclosed areas and some breeding populations is a solution to the extinction crisis?
Katherine Moseby: That's a really good question 'cause there was if you actually look at the IUCN criteria for delisting species, we have met those criteria for quite a lot of species, including the bilby because we've put them back into so many safe havens. Meanwhile, the wild population in the Northern Territory is still declining and, you know, thinking it will go extinct in the wild in the next few decades or whatever. So we don't wanna be delisting species because we've got them in safe havens. We need to be protecting those wild populations, those remnant wild populations. They need to be given special protection so we don't just end up with animals just behind fences.
Rebecca West: Because we're also learning from our long-term tracking of some of these populations in fences is that things can go really well for the first 20 years and then suddenly, boom, something happens. They eat all of their food, or there's a big drought and they all die and you add something else. And that didn't help. And so you don't wanna just say, ‘Oh, well, we've got them behind the fence they're all fine now’, because you can't quite predict what's coming.
Gilad Bino: And it would be highly impractical to do that for platypuses. So that's...
Ann Jones: Any of the panel members entertain rewilding a marine context?
Rebecca West: Does it involve scuba diving?
Ann Jones: Does it involve scuba diving, person in the audience? No, I don't know.
Rebecca West: No, Katherine and I get really seasick. So we're not interested in marine environments.
Richard Kingsford: You're not going anywhere.
Rebecca West: We are land-based.
Richard Kingsford: I think it would just depend if you had somewhere that was missing. I mean, I guess the marine systems ecosystems, while we know there's a lot of fishing, we don't have the sort of same introduced pressures. That we have on land.
Ann Jones: Sea foxes.
Richard Kingsford: Yeah, those well-known sea foxes.
Katherine Moseby: But sharks are missing from a lot of marine communities.
Ann Jones: Cause we are out of time. And I do wanna keep on talking about this, but one more question. How is climate change going to impact all of your fancy fences?
Richard Kingsford: They'll just get hotter the fences. So, I mean
Rebecca West: It's a worry.
Richard Kingsford: This is probably I mean, this is what Katherine's been working on.
Katherine Moseby: Oh, yeah. So I'm looking at heat extremes and the impact of heat extremes because summer temperatures have increased and heat waves are increasing and it's gonna be a really big problem. So yeah, we don't have the answers, but we are gonna have to do more intensive management of these areas in order to offset things like drought, things like bushfires and, you know, those extreme weather events that we're gonna get more of with climate change. So it's gonna be another hurdle that we have to overcome. So yes.
Richard Kingsford: There is one advantage in a lot of these animals are nocturnal and they also live underground. So it's a bit, they're a bit less.
Katherine Moseby: In some ways. But then nocturnal nighttime temperatures actually have more impact than diurnal temperatures. So...
Ann Jones: Well, rewilding is central to Australia's conservation efforts. I think that the panel has given us so many examples of that tonight. It's not going to be the only thing that saves our species. It's one of the bricks in the wall of conservation efforts, so it can by no means exist by itself. Its strength is in having many different strategies working all at once. So thank you for joining us tonight at Rewilding. I'd like to thank our panel for joining us. Can you give them a little round of applause first? Just a little one. (APPLAUSE) And I'd now like to welcome Sven Rogge, the dean of the Faculty of Science at UNSW, to the stage to close the event. And then you can do a big round of applause.
Sven Rogge: Good evening, Ann. Thank you very much. I would like to also thank Gilad, Bec, Katherine and Richard for this amazing discussion and all for their work, your research and active engagement in that space led to an enormous impact on conservation in Australia and also globally. That is a very, very important achievement. I'm very proud of that as Dean. If I reflect on what you discussed today and also the little bit that I have seen of your work. First, I'd like to sort of remind us that the platypus event that I had the privilege of joining was really amazing. I live in that part of the woods and seeing the platypus come back was really like a very, very emotional experience and exciting.
It was also really good to see how your partners worked with you. Taronga, Royal National Park ,World Wildlife Fund. See you basically together at the pinnacle of this event and celebrate that. It was also really good to see you as a trusted partner in that. We were also reminded about the challenges like the 30-30 challenge, and I found it really encouraging, but also a bit scary to be reminded that anything we do or you do in that space needs to be scalable, like getting ten platypus back in the Royal National Park is fantastic.
But we need to do this really on the scale of Australia, not just in one small area and going from 20km² to 100km² is good, but Australia is big, so I don't need to remind you. I wanna remind all of us how big the challenge is in that. And you mentioned that this event here could be an annual review for our colleagues here. And I think that's a good example because, from my perspective, that group got a ten out of ten for the KPIs. So I'm immensely proud of that. And I would like to congratulate them and please join me in doing so. (APPLAUSE) It gives us all hope. And with that, I would like to conclude the event. Thank you all for joining us here tonight, and I hope to see you again at UNSW. Good night. (APPLAUSE)
UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. This event was presented by UNSW Centre for Ideas and UNSW Science as part of National Science Week. For more information visit centreforideas.com and don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Gilad Bino is a Senior Lecturer for the Centre for Ecosystem Science in the Faculty of Science at UNSW Sydney and is the lead researcher and co-founder of the Platypus Conservation Initiative. Bino is passionate about conservation and science and seeks to address the ongoing biodiversity crisis by understanding the underlying processes that shape biodiversity at multiple spatial and temporal scales to inform and prioritise conservation management.
Richard Kingsford is the Director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at UNSW Sydney. He is a river ecologist and conservation biologist who has worked extensively across the wetlands and rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin and Lake Eyre Basin. Richard worked for the New South Wales Government Environment Agency from 1986–2004 and has also worked with numerous communities and local governments across this region. His research has influenced the policy and management of rivers in Australia, including through his involvement on state and federal advisory committees.
He also leads a reintroduction, or rewilding, project called Wild Deserts, in Sturt National Park, the Ramsar Wetlands project, as well as collaborating on the Platypus Conservation Initiative and Red-Listing of Ecosystems. He has a keen focus on creating effective and lasting conservation actions and policies through adaptive management approaches and engaging with communities.
Katherine Moseby is an ARC Future Fellow and Scientia Fellow in the Centre for Ecosystem Science in the Faculty of Science at UNSW Sydney. She lives and works in Australia's arid zone and is passionate about conserving our desert ecosystems. Her interests include improving the plight of threatened species through conducting research and then directly applying the learnings to conservation management and reintroductions. She has conducted research and reintroductions on a range of arid and her research focuses on large scale field experiments designed to improve the plight of threatened species through adaptive management. She has a special interest in creating conservation partnerships that combine research with on ground outcomes and have co-founded four on-ground conservation initiatives; Arid Recovery, Tetepare Island, Wild Deserts and Middleback Alliance.
Dr Rebecca West is the Principal Ecologist for the Wild Deserts project, which is using translocation of locally extinct mammals to achieve landscape scale restoration of an arid ecosystem in far north-west NSW. Rebecca is an early career researcher with a research focus on translocation and restoration ecology. Her current research projects include determining protocols to successfully establish multi-species assemblages within safe havens and methods for landscape scale predator control and translocation success beyond fenced enclosures.
Ann Jones | Chairperson
Dr Ann Jones is a journalist and presenter with an engaging and energetic approach to live events. She has the ability to observe the unusual and tell stories in sensitive and creative ways. She specialises in creating a strong connection with topics and can command a large audience with agility and flexibility, a skill she developed after years of daily live radio presentation.
Dr Ann Jones can be heard across Australia on ABCs RN, showcasing the best of nature, adventure and scientific research on her weekly program, Off Track as well as her latest podcast What The Duck! uncovering nature’s weirdness.
Ann Jones appears by arrangement with Claxton Speakers International.