23rd May - Yookamurra Sanctuary

Warrawong Sanctuary demonstrated that Australia need not lose its wildlife, It also showed the way to go. However, one important point was that it took thirteen years to complete. Why it took so long demonstrated the real problem.

When development of Warrawong Sanctuary commenced in 1969, there were three groups of people who’s perceived job it was to save our wildlife. They were Adelaide Zoo, Adelaide Museum and the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service. These three groups between them consumed the available public funds for conservation. There was room for no-one else.

The concept of Warrawong seemed to terrify them. This terror reached its summit in 1975 when, as I stated earlier, the then Premier of South Australia, the honourable Mr Don Dunstan, called a Special Executive Council Meeting of the South Australian Parliament and ordered the Police Commissioner to lock me up.

Without this understanding, of the terror that a possible competitor struck  to the very hearts of these honourable ladies and gentlemen, it would be easy to make the grave mistake of trusting them. It would then be easy to make the much graver mistake of co-operating with them. That is where the greatest danger lies - cooperation - the buzz word of monopolists all over the world.

It was with this understanding that work commenced on Yookamurra Sanctuary. This sanctuary was located in the Murray Mallee. It consisted of over 1,000 hectares. It contained some of the last of the old mallee left in the world. Of the twenty most endangered species of endangered mammal, ten once lived in the Murray Mallee.

Two hundred years ago one fifth of Australia was mallee. Today it is all but gone. It has either been pulled over or burnt. It takes 400 years for a mallee trunk to develop a hollow big enough for a numbat to live in. Mallee National Parks burn every thirty years. There are no old mallee trunks in Mallee National Parks.

In an effort to bypass the problems which occurred with Warrawong Sanctuary a special agreement was entered into with Susan Lenehan, the South Australian Minister for the Environment. This agreement set out very clearly the aims and directions of Yookamurra Sanctuary. The whole 1,113 hectares would be fenced with a fox, cat, rabbit and goat proof fence. The fence would be designed so that big kangaroos and emus would be able to cross it. The feral animals would be eradicated. Woylies, boodies, sticknest rats, numbats, bilbies, western barred bandicoot, red-tailed phascogales, chuditch, banded hare wallabies and bridled nailtail wallabies would be reintroduced. The agreement was signed by John Wamsley on behalf of Yookamurra sanctuary and Susan Lenehan on behalf of the South Australian Government. Surely there would be no problems now.

Before the agreement was even signed, an officer of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service spoke with the Directors of Yookamurra Sanctuary, John Wamsley and Proo Geddes. He said that as far as The National Parks were concerned the agreement was meaningless. He said there was no way, in the world, they would allow the reintroduction of any wildlife back into Yookamurra Sanctuary.

There seemed no other way, therefore, other than to buy native animals in situ. Two hundred thousand dollars had been put aside to pay for the first of the reintroductions back into Yookamurra Sanctuary. With this not possible, this money was used to purchase Buckaringa Sanctuary in the Flinders Ranges. Buckaringa had been described as the best yellow-footed rock-wallaby habitat anywhere. Here lived the largest colony of yellow-footed rock-wallabies left.

The reaction from the South Australian National Parks was immediate. They would not allow a sanctuary to be developed at Buckaringa. If Buckaringa was given to the National Parks then the National Parks would abide by its agreement with Yookamurra Sanctuary and allow the reintroduction of wildlife.

A new technique was to be tried. How does a small group of public servants viciously defame someone with impunity? A simple method is through Parliament and Hansard. On the 7th October 1992 a question was asked in the South Australian Parliament:- “Why the Department of Environment and Planning rejected the offer of cheap and effective assistance from Dr John Wamsley and his team to help eradicate cats and other feral pests from our National Parks following his success at Yookamurra Sanctuary?” In Answer the Honourable S.M. Lenehan read a prepared statement. Prepared by whom? It was a false, vicious attack on the work carried out at Yookamurra Sanctuary. However, it was published in Hansard. It could be handed freely to anyone. The damage it caused to Earth Sanctuaries’ projects was enormous.

However, the work at Yookamurra proceeded. Three thousand acres totally cleared of feral animals. This was to be a world first. Yet it is still ignored by the establishment. The story however, should be told.

How does one totally clear over 1,000 hectares of rabbits? It had not been done before. One of the staff at Yookamurra Sanctuary attended a training course on eradicating rabbits. He later told an interesting story.

“On the first night we went out with spotlights and counted rabbits. There were rabbits everywhere.

“The next few days we spread oats to get them used to feeding and then we spread 1080 oats.

“The next night we went out with spotlights and counted rabbits. There were rabbits everywhere. I said to the person in charge, ‘What has gone wrong?’

He replied, “Nothing, this is a 95% kill.”

“How do you get that.”

“The methods we used give a 95% kill.”

It makes one think of John Williamson’s song “Mallee Boy” where he says, “eradicating rabbits is an easy thing to do.”

We would start by firstly counting the rabbits. That seemed reasonable. How would we count the rabbits? It seemed the most noticeable signs were the “buck heaps” where, we were told, the bucks marked out their territory. They were very visible. What did they mean?

Eight hectares were fenced off with rabbit proof fencing. The rabbits within were carefully monitored. There were 4 rabbits using 16 buck heaps. However, the female rabbits were using the buck heaps as much as the male rabbits. So they became rabbit heaps from then on.

The whole 1,113 hectares of Yookamurra Sanctuary were then grided into 200 metre by 200 metre grids. Each grid was then carefully checked and all rabbit heaps counted. This work was carried out by Margaret and Don Gillies. Without their help Yookamurra Sanctuary would not have worked. Six thousand rabbit heaps - 1,500 rabbits. The slaughter began.

A group of animal liberationists turned up headed by Christine Pearson. We were not very nice people killing all these rabbits and, by the way, it is illegal to kill a feral cat in South Australia. The local paper, the Barossa and Light Herald, grabbed the story, “Thousands of animals slaughtered at Mallee Sanctuary” the headline glared. On page nine they said they were rabbits, but who reads page 9 of the Barossa and Light Herald?

After four weeks there were not many rabbits left. Margaret and Don did a recount - 120 rabbit heaps still in use - 30 rabbits remain. Where to now?

The officer from Pest Control said, “You do not have any rabbits left here.”

“Yes we do - look there is a rabbit dig there.”

“Look for all practical purposes, you have no rabbits.”

“But if we do no more we will soon have 1,500 rabbits again.”

“Yes, but now you know what to do with them.”

A friend said that what we needed were some hunting dogs. He was in a hunt club. He would soon get rid of the remaining rabbits. About 30 people turned up with about 300 dogs. There were dogs fighting everywhere. One dog would not come out from under the car. It had lifted its leg on the electric fence. It was a very hot day. After a couple of hours the friend announced there were no rabbits and they all left.

An add in the Adelaide Advertiser may do the trick. “Wanted. Professional rabbiter with dog needed to clear residue rabbits from 3,000 acres. Full board. Top wages.”

Hundreds replied. None were professional rabbiters. None had dogs. And then one call from a woman claiming her husband could do the job. He would contact me when he returned.

Adam O’Neil came with his dog and his gun. Within six weeks there were no more rabbits at Yookamurra. He left saying he thought he had got all the foxes but there may be one dog fox left. What a dog fox it turned out to be.

Nothing was taking the baits. No fox footprints could be found. The first of the animals were released. They were all very quickly killed by a fox. We learned a lot about this fox over the next 8 months. It would not walk on dusty ground - no footprints. It would not eat anything once it was dead - even if it killed it. It would simply kill, eating a little while doing so and then move onto the next animal.

A person from Queensland turned up to do the dawn walk at Warrawong on a morning when I was taking the walk. He had breakfast with me. He said, “Have you ever fed a cat diazapan?” “No, I replied, Why?” He then recounted a wonderful story:

“He had a deer farm in Queensland. They used diazapan to knock out the deer if they had to do anything with them. They had treated this deer. A low flying aeroplane frightened it the next day and it ran into the fence breaking its neck. The next day a fox was sitting on it. It was totally comatosed. He hit it over the head with a bit of 4x2.” What music.

“We cannot get diazapan in South Australia without a doctor’s prescription.”

“Don’t worry, I have a car boot full out there I will give you some.”

By this time we were feeding the fox a chook a night. Tonight, the chook was dusted with diazapan. It reminded me of the story of “how to catch pink elephants.” Pink elephants are impossible to catch. Grey elephants are easy to catch. Simply give the pink elephant something to worry about. Worry him until he turns grey. Then he is easy to catch.

When the fox staggered into the camp with a rabbit trap on one front foot and a rabbit trap on a back foot. It was so easy to catch.

The problem then switched to other things. In South Australia, at that time, only strychnine could be used for poisoning foxes. Hundreds of strychnine baits had to be collected. What is the easiest way to collect strychnine baits. With a dog.

No-one will lend you a dog to pick up strychnine baits. Earth Sanctuaries had acquired a dog because of the problems the fox had caused. He was called Syd. However, at that time, he had not been trained. It was considered it would be safe to find baits wearing a muzzle. Hundreds of baits were soon collected but unfortunately Syd got one past the muzzle and soon the fits started.

A call to the nearest vet, about an hour away, produced an unwanted response. There was no chance of saving the dog. If it was there, the vet could save it but it would be dead within the hour. “There must be something that we can do”. The only chance would be to knock it out with something.

Half an hour later Syd, high on Valium, arrived at the vet’s door. A new method had been discovered to save strychnined dogs.

With the fox eliminated, the reintroductions commenced. The first were excess woylies from Warrawong Sanctuary. The South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service insisted that we release excess woylies from the South Australian Museum. We did so, although they were too soft and none survived.

I remembered the woylie story. The brush-tailed bettongs we proudly bought back from Peterborough were in fact Tasmanian Bettongs or Bettongia gaimardi. I remember we had great fun registering them because the people we bought them from had them registered as Bettongia penicillata. The South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service did not have a number for gaimardi, they only had one for penicillata. So when I filled in my transfer form I put down the name as Tasmanian Bettong and the species number as unknown.

I received a long letter from the Department telling me the reason for filling in the form right. It was important that they knew where these rare animals were in case someone, some day decided to try to save them. I wrote back explaining that there was no number for the Tasmanian Bettong. They replied saying I should use the number for the brush-tailed bettong. If I had, that would have been the end of the story. However, I decided that was not the right thing to do.

Some years later someone realised that we had both Bettongia penicillata and gaimardi. Someone else realised that we were not a zoo and that all our animals lived together. Someone else remembered that one day over one hundred years ago there was a report that gaimardi and penicillate interbred at London Zoo. And then someone else realised that it was illegal to hybridise native animals. Unfortunately for us, these four people all turned up at the same dinner party. We were in serious trouble.

I received a telephone call from the head of crime prevention, National Parks. “Was it true that I was hybridising bettongs?” I spent a great deal of time explaining that our animals lived in the wild and that whereas domesticated animals did these things, it didn’t happen with wild animals.

A few weeks later I received another call. It seemed that someone was not happy with that explanation. Would I supply some bettongs for blood testing to see if they were interbreeding? I stated that they were not interbreeding but I would be delighted to supply animals for blood testing.

A man turned up. I was not expecting him. He was here to pick up the bettongs. He was pleased to see that I had seen the light. He was a policeman for the Commonwealth Police and he would have made life very difficult for me if I had not agreed. There was an immediate personality clash here. I told him to buzz off.

Another telephone call from the National Parks. Could they come up and take some blood samples from our bettongs. Of course they could but could they please let us know when they were coming.

Several people turned up with traps and syringes. They trapped a couple of dozen bettongs, took blood samples and left.

A couple of weeks later - the result. There had been no interbreeding of bettongs at Warrawong Sanctuary. Oh! Well! that’s what I had told them.

But just in case, we were told, it would be better for us to release pure museum bred stock than Warrawong stock. It wasn’t worth arguing about. Other than calling them woylies, as requested by the Western Australians, we were just happy to have them. Our woylies thrived at Yookamurra Sanctuary.

The South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service insisted on counting our woylies at Yookamurra. Although you can walk across Yookamurra Sanctuary at night seeing woylies everywhere, they said there were no woylies at Yookamurra Sanctuary. This was to be the start of a well thought out plan, by the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, to discredit Earth Sanctuaries. All the literature to be published on the saving of the woylie from extinction would fail to mention the work done by Warrawong and Yookamurra Sanctuaries.

After much argument the National Parks and Wildlife Service agreed to release stick-nest rats - but only if their release methods were used. All failed. Whether this was planned or not can only be conjectured. Some bled to death because their tails were cut off. Some were taken by birds of prey due to their oversize and colourful radio collars.

Adelaide Zoo agreed to release stone curlews - but only if their release methods were used. They failed. Their feeding was stopped while they were still in a restricted area and they died of hunger. Was this planned? We will never know. It just seems strange that every independent release we have ever done has worked. Every release ever carried out by the National Parks and Wildlife Service or Adelaide Zoo failed. Adelaide Zoo promised to release some bustards at Yookamurra but it never happened.

Then came the big breakthrough. Western Australia would supply animals for Yookamurra Sanctuary. First was to be the numbat. This release carried out under agreement with the Western Australian Department of Conservation and Land Management went like a dream. Fifteen numbats soon built up to about 50 numbats which seems to be the carrying capacity of the first 3,000 acres. Plans are already under way to increase the size of Yookamurra Sanctuary to 9,000 acres.

There was only one hiccup with the numbats. Shortly after they were released one was found dead. An autopsy revealed a deadly gut parasite which cycled through the numbat and termites. We caught up all the remaining numbats and killed the parasites.

The difference between how the Western Australians did things and how the South Australians did things was impressive. The Western Australians were true professionals at every level. They were only interested in facts. They were not swayed by vicious rumours.

This campaign of false rumour and mis-information by the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service was to continue for many years and is still running today. It is a very simple plan. It is the job of the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service to inform the world of the conservation successes and failures within South Australia. It would simply ignore the work Earth Sanctuaries was doing. It would therefore disseminate defamatory and false information under the name of it being bona fide research information. It would use the normal scientific channels to spread this information. There was little Earth Sanctuaries could do. If it complained of this malicious and false information being distributed by the Zoo and other scientific organisations, then they simply threatened defamation proceedings against Earth Sanctuaries. These organisations, since they are government funded, have infinite resources.

Even Jack Giles of Taronga Zoo handed us a paper one day titled Reintroduction of macropods in Australia - A review published in 1992 and written by him. It ignored our reintroductions of brush-tailed bettongs. Since this was our business, it would be hard to imagine a better way to damage us.

Melbourne Zoo had greater problems since we were successfully breeding platypus in captivity. They issued all sorts of defamatory material aimed at damaging us.

Yookamurra Sanctuary was restocked with hand raised southern hairy-nosed wombats. Most of these were reared by Proo.

An attempt was made to reintroduce mallee fowl. However, we had to follow release procedures laid down by the National Parks so they had little chance of success.

Western Australia then supplied 20 boodies for release at Yookamurra. These initially thrived but their numbers have reduced severely under the present drought at Yookamurra. We are hoping at this stage that they will recommence breeding when the rains come. If they do not we may have to try them at Scotia.

Probably the most disappointing result we had was with bilbies. By 1991 we had been promised bilbies by the Northern Territory Conservation Commission. No-one even knew what a bilby was. We had big plans for bilbies.

Easter, 1991, saw the first sales of Chocolate Easter Bilbies at Warrawong Sanctuary. It was obvious from the start we were onto a winner. With careful planning and proper selling, the bilby was to be the first Australian mammal to fund its own saving. The plan was so simple. It did have, however, one big flaw.

The Anti-Rabbit Foundation registered the name and the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service decided our bilbies would go to Adelaide Zoo instead of us. In 1994 two pairs of bilbies arrived at the Zoo. Our dreams were shattered.

Today, none of the money raised by the sale of Chocolate Easter Bilbies goes towards saving bilbies. Most of it goes to zoos, to lock up bilbies in cages. The rest goes to the Bilby Recovery Group to travel Australia having meetings.

All the wildlife reintroduced to Yookamurra Sanctuary have thrived. Clips of these can be seen at Yookamurra Wildlife.