Hayley Shute has her hands full as we are about to start our chat. A couple of koalas need her attention before we get the chance to talk about her work at Aussie Ark, a wildlife conservation organisation dedicated to protecting Australia’s endangered species. “That’s one of the things I love most about my job: you never know what they might spring on you next”, she says with a laugh.
With the koalas safely moved, Hayley shares her love for Australian wildlife conservation with infectious enthusiasm. “Most people get so excited about lions and elephants, and other exotic animals from far-flung locations, but we are so lucky to have so many unique animals here in Australia – and we need to do much more to protect them”, she asserts.
As the curator at the non-for-profit organisation she’s working to save some of Australia’s most vulnerable species from extinction and to educate the public about the need to protect them. “Unfortunately, many people have never heard about some of our most threatened animal species”, she says. “And the less awareness there is, the harder it is to secure their future.”
Saving the Tasmanian Devil
In 2011 they launched Devil Ark with the aim to establish an insurance population of the endangered Tasmanian Devil on the Australian mainland. The iconic marsupial – that now can only be found in Tasmania in the wild – is under threat because of a particular nasty form of cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD).
“The disease is especially horrible as it’s a contagious form of cancer”, explains Hayley. “Since Tassie Devils are for the most part solitary animals but come together at night to feed, they tend to bite and nip at each other which allows the cancer to spread very rapidly.”
Thankfully, the Devil Ark project has been very successful so far in establishing an insurance population with over 300 healthy joeys born over 7 breeding seasons.
Some of the Tasmanian Devils from the breeding program have already been released into the wild to Forestier Peninsula and Aussie Ark keepers have been able to confirm pouch young with some of the females. The ultimate goal is to introduce more Tasmanian Devils from the insurance population into the wild once the time is right.
Breeding for the wild
After the success of the devil breeding program, the organisation has broadened its focus to other species (and became Aussie Ark in the process) that are also threatened to become extinct. “We have also had some amazing success with the Eastern Quoll which has been considered extinct on the Australian mainland since the 1960s”, says Hayley.
Aussie Ark’s Eastern Quoll program has been so effective that they are ready to release 20 of them into Booderee National Park in 2019 while continuing to breed a genetically robust population.
“Aussie Ark’s approach and focus is very much about rewilding the species we breed”, explains Hayley. “This is why we set up huge sanctuaries that resemble their wild environment as closely as possible and where they have very limited human contact.”
Due to the threat posed by feral cats and foxes this means that these insurance populations are kept in vast predator-free fenced areas on a property in Barrington Tops.
Prioritising wildlife conservation projects
One of the reasons why the Aussie Ark programs have been so successful, is their focussed approach. The organisation works to establish a healthy population of one species before adding new projects to their portfolio. In addition to the Tasmanian Devil and the Eastern Quoll, they are also working to save the incredibly rare Manning River Turtle and the Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby.
“Given the location of our sanctuaries, we are directing our attention toward species that can thrive in this environment and climate”, says Hayley.
With over 1800 plant and animal species at risk of extinction in Australia this can mean making some tough decisions on what project to focus on next. “Personally, I think this is one of the hardest things about working in Australian wildlife conservation. One organisation can only do so much and there are many animals that need our help”, says Hayley. “I wish this area would get more serious attention on a government level.”
Getting involved in Australian wildlife conservation
Feral cats and foxes, urban expansion, rapid deforestation and climate change – the list of factors posing a threat to Australia’s wildlife is long. For anyone looking to get involved in wildlife conservation, Hayley recommends getting an understanding of native wildlife in the local neighbourhood. “It’s much easier to make an impact if you’re working with local organisations and can directly see the results of your work.”
Aussie Ark also offers multiple ways for people to support their work. Their monthly Devil in the Wild tours provide visitors with a rare opportunity to get up close to Tasmanian Devil and learn more about the conservation program. It’s also possible to stay in the area Devil’s Retreat with proceeds from both initiatives supporting Aussie Ark’s multiple projects. One-off or monthly donations can be made via the Aussie Ark website.
Image credit: Aussie Ark