RSS Feed

Category Archives: Wildlife

Slow and steady wins the day

100 year old plus some

100 years old plus some

My first ever pet disappeared into someone’s soup. No, he didn’t fall. We were fresh out from England and didn’t know that in Africa tortoise was a local delicacy. I had him about a year until he was fat enough… I mean, until he ‘disappeared.’

In that year, I fell in love.

Most 6 year olds girls I knew played with dolls and prams and nice clean girly stuff. But not me. My tortoise and I were best mates out in our red soil yard. We played doctors and nurses (that’s another story – sorry Blackie the rabbit) and made pretend houses from mud, sticks and grass. We nibbled home grown peanuts and took turns on the swing. Until the shock discovery of the empty pen.

He’s run away, said my mum.

A tortoise. Run away? But I believed her, and grieved like only a 7 year old can, with a private memorial service of course. I never stopped hoping he’d come on home, and it was only many years later I found out about the soup.

Sam with tortoiseSince then, I’ve always had a thing for tortoises. Perhaps it’s their smiley faces. Or their ungainly gait. Either way, it led me to Ecuador last month to see the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. And they didn’t disappoint. I was surprised how active they were for such heavy animals (they weigh on average 250kg), and how tolerant they were of us snapping cameras in their faces. The ones we saw were over 100 years old, living completely in the wild. The Darwin Research Institute collects most of the eggs (each female only lays one egg per year) and raises the tortoises in captivity until they are three years old. After that, the introduced predators, like rats and dogs, won’t eat them, they’re released in the area they came from, and they thrive.

The Galapagos is certainly worth a visit, if you happen to be passing! Some of the other treats were beautiful Boobie birds, dinosaur like iguanas and bright red chested frigate birds. I can feel a story coming on …

Boobie Bird of the Galapagos

Boobie Bird of the Galapagos

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Land based iguana

Frigate bird

Male Frigate bird

 

 

 

A matter of write or wrong

It seems kids don’t hate maths anymore. Now they hate … English!

Abby with puppy jazzy

Abby with puppy Jazzy

A recent chat with a friend’s daughter, Abby, helped me understand. Abby told me that she hates English because she hates writing. I’ve heard this before. But why? Trying to get to the bottom of it, I ask Abby, ‘But you like reading right?’ Oh yes! What’s your favourite book? Well … a small shy tilt of the head …well that would be Smooch & Rose. My heart melts. Abby likes my book. She’s read it three times. She wants to be a wildlife carer when she grows up (like Rose). There’s no second option. Wildlife carer or nothing. She makes me smile. Other favourite reading titles include the National Geographic for Kids magazine which comes out every month, and of course, other animal books. Her favourite animal is the cheetah, because it is the fastest runner in the world. She’d like to go to Africa to see one in the wild one day.

So why do you hate writing Abby?

A pause. I prefer to draw, she says. Here’s the picture I’m drawing at the moment. Abby shows me a picture of a girl with stars in her hair. She’s gorgeous, wouldn’t you like to write about her? A tiny shake of the head. But say you did decide to write about this girl, and she had the job of telling all the kids in the Australia how to help koalas, what would you write? Oh, that’s easy. I would write that people should car pool to save carbon emissions, and people should drive more carefully at night so they don’t knock koalas over. They should definitely lock their dogs up at night … a pause while Jazzie, the 6 month old family puppy breaks inside and nibbles our plate of bikkies … and they should tell everyone how precious our koalas are.

Great! I say. There you go, you could easily write all that! Abby smiles and doesn’t look convinced. I think I’ve cracked the problem. Our kids are getting stage fright. They worry what they have to say might not be polished enough or exciting enough, so they get scared and resist putting words down on paper. After all, their world is full of amazing entertainment. What on earth could they possibly say of interest to anyone?

Easier to write nothing.

CheetahSo how can we help retrieve the love of writing? I think the answer is to take away the pressure. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to the imagination. Enid Blyton didn’t have to worry about Naplan narratives. Try writing a story out loud. No pens to paper, just starting big, letting our imaginations run wild. Wild like an African cheetah. It seems that free of all the restraints of actually writing, anyone can make a narrative sing. It’s about being brave enough to think big, without the fear of falling. And remembering the big five: the who, what, where, when and how of storytelling,

By the way, Abby’s favourite colour is yellow and she loves ice-cream.

When I grow up …

my family and other animalsOne of my favourite books when I was young was ‘My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell. I so much wanted to be Gerry – living on an island in Greece, collecting animals and exploring nature all day. In high school, I toyed with becoming a marine biologist so I could swim with dolphins, or becoming a vet so I could work with elephants in the wilds of Africa. But my ever practical Dad talked me out of both options, and instead I chose a degree in Agriculture. A sensible and wise choice.

Actually, I loved working with farmers, but don’t you always wonder, what if …?

This year, I had the pleasure in meeting a real life park ranger, the talented and compassionate Kristen from the Daisy Hill Koala Centre. Kristen has many roles, including caring for koalas that come to the centre after recovering from injury or disease. This is what she said about being a ranger:

Kristen with Elsa

“I always wanted to work with animals, right from about the age of six. I thought maybe I would grow up to be a cat minder, or a pet sitter or maybe a ranger. To become a park ranger, I studied Applied Science at Gatton, followed by a six month course at TAFE studying native animal care. (I started with Environmental Science, but there was way too much chemistry.) Once I was finished, I volunteered in a wildlife park at the Gap in Brisbane, before getting the job at Daisy Hill. The best part of my job is having a close relationship with koalas, and the worst is seeing some of the koalas we pick up in the koala ambulance.”

In the picture above, Kristen is feeding a beautiful female koala called Elsa. Elsa was injured by a car at eight months old and arrived at the centre after she was unable to return to the wild. She’d had an upset stomach a few days before, and Kristen collected some droppings from the healthy koalas to feed to Elsa to return some healthy bacteria to her system. A bit like how we would take Inner Health Plus if our system was out of whack. Elsa patiently sucked up all the syringes Kristen had made, and then went off to eat some fresh eucalypt leaves collected by other rangers in the park. It was clear how close Kristen was to her koalas and her knowledge and commitment to them was inspiring.

Daisy Hill koalaDaisy Hill is having an Open Day on January 19th  if you want to meet Kristen, or Elsa, or even me, as I will be attending. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about koalas or about becoming a ranger, or just to see koalas up close, for free. For details, see here. For information about what you can do to help koalas, see my website.

Thanks to our teachers

Can anyone make a difference?

I’ve been privileged these last few weeks to speak in some local schools about koala conservation while talking about my book Smooch & Rose. What a delight it has been! I have attended koala consevation meetings and read articles about the rapidly falling numbers of koalas in SE Queensland, and I often find myself in a state of despair about the fate of our furry little friend. But after my recent school visits, a tiny ray of hope has broken through the gloom.

Welcome sign from Redlands State SchoolNot only have the students I’ve visited been well informed and enthusiastic about wildlife conservation, they are encouraged to embrace this passion by their wonderful teachers. When I ask students about what is killing our koalas, they know the answer. Habitat destruction, disease, dog attacks and car fatalities. Over 16,000 koalas have been killed in the last few years, which is way too many. Students as young as seven have great ideas about how to prevent these unnecessary deaths and they are confident and optimistic with their views.

This confidence comes from great teaching.

So thanks to the teachers and parents of our next generation. Thanks to you, I am starting to feel hopeful that our koala may have a future. If the students I’ve met these last few weeks are any indication, standing up for Australia’s favourite icon will be second nature to them. They haven’t lost their way about what is important and as one boy put it, ‘we need koalas because they make us happy’. Yes they do. Like many things in nature, koalas can’t be quantified in dollar terms or by a list of their useful products. Koalas make us happy and our children’s children need to have them in their lives.

When I wrote Smooch & Rose, I hoped that the message ‘anyone can make a difference’ would stick. I’m starting to see it will. I just hope it won’t be too late.

What can you do to help?

Koalas should be protected.

Heartless or helpful

Koala on Road

Let’s keep him alive. Image credit: 123RSS.

In a recent article in my local newspaper Bayside Bulletin about koala road deaths, the president of the Koala Action Group, Debbie Pointing, made a suggestion that  koalas that had been killed by cars should be left on the side of the road for other motorists to see. The response to her suggestion was rather feisty. People said …

“It’s cruel and heartless to leave dead koalas for us to see.”

I admit that I dislike seeing road kill. My saddest sight are the dead wombats littering the side of the highway outside Canberra on the way to the Snowy Mountains. But they do remind me to look out for wildlife crossing the road. The fact is the animal has been killed. That’s the heartless thing. Does removing them change this? Not really. The council said …

“About 35 % of all koala deaths in Redland City are from cars.”

Koala crossing sign

Image credit: 123RSS.

We can easily step out of our warm, safe houses, jump into sound proof cars, turn up the radio and drive to work, forgetting that koalas are out there. We don’t give a second thought to the animals that may have lost their lives in the night while trying to find a mate or trying to find food. While I don’t want to see dead animals on my way to work, it may mean I think twice about speeding in a koala marked area. It might mean I lobby the Government to put more crossings in place, or to put stricter rules on developers about what they can and can’t do in koala populated areas.

So as gruesome as it might be, I tend to agree with Debbie. We need to be reminded of the other critters in our world. We are not the only ones entitled to use this land, and if seeing a dead koala helps save five more koalas, I say it’s worth the unpleasantness.

Further reading

How many koalas crossed the road?

One koala, two koalas, three koalas, four.
Five koalas, six koalas, seven koalas … what ….
None? Surely not?

Koala on branch

Image credit:123RS.

Not far from my place a busy road regularly claims the lives of our vulnerable koalas. In fact, between 1997 and 2008, over 2000 koalas were hit by vehicles on Redlands roads.

Last year I noticed a big green bridge being built.

Yahoo! A wildlife crossing! So what if the poles looked a little slippery and steep? Someone must have done the research and decided koalas liked these crossings – right?

Wrong!

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Annual General Meeting of the Koala Action Group of Redland Bay, where guest speaker Cath Dexter, Senior Research Ecologist from the SEQ Koala Road Mitigation Project, spoke about her work researching the movement patterns of wild koalas, including the crossings that koalas make over some of the busiest roads in SE Queensland.

You have to admire the tenacity of Cath and her crew. They tackled radio collars that fell off, inaccurate recordings, vandals, koalas that insisted on crossing the same road over and over again, drought, fire, flood and sick koalas that just plain died.

But, after 3 years, their patience paid off. They had substantial tracking and photo evidence to make some definite statements about the way in which koalas moved around busy roads. No surprises there. Young male koalas crossed busy roads the most, and more frequently in the mating season. They crossed whenever they felt like it, not just in the middle of the night. They liked the trees in the median strips too and often visited these as feed trees, not just passing through.

Koala crossing

Fauna overpass on the busy road near my house. Image credit: Samantha Wheeler.

Then Cath talked about monitoring some “retro-fitted” wildlife crossings. These included tunnels and the fancy new over-pass near my place. She showed us some great footage of koalas, possums, snakes, kangaroos, and echidnas crossing under the roads in the modified drainage pipes.

It was so exciting to think these animals had their lives spared by these safe crossings. But not all roads can have tunnels built under them once they are constructed. So overpasses are more practical for existing roads. So the big question was … how many of the twenty four koalas living in my area had crossed over the shiny new Mains Road funded fauna overpass? Ten? Twenty? Three? All twenty four? We held our breath. Leant forward. Listened …

Cath quietly explained that no koalas had been seen crossing the new bridge. None!

Sponsored-Koala-research-Camera-276x207[1]

Photo of a koala using a modified underpass to cross under the road. Image credit: Griffith University.

Any possums? None. How could this be? As far as Cath knew the bridge prototype had not been tested as the “best practice” crossing for wildlife such as koalas before installation. The company that had built the bridge had not consulted Cath and her team before building it. Surely the prototype had been tested at a place like Australia Zoo with captive koalas before installation. Nope. My heart sank. So no koalas used the crossing? Nope. Why? Because there was no tree line run up to the crossing? Because the poles were too thick, too slippery? Cath didn’t know, but the lack of research into the crossing seemed heart breaking. It felt like it was all just a big political scam, made to look like the Government was doing the right thing for the koalas, made to make me and you feel good, but not really helping koalas? Surely not?

Overpass near Brunswick Heads

Overpass near Brunswick Heads. Image credit: Samantha Wheeler.

An audience member raised her hand. She was a koala ambulance driver with the daunting task of picking up injured koalas from the side of the road. She pointed out that the fencing either side of the overpass was helping reduce deaths. That was a relief. And the tunnels were undoubtedly working. I’d gotten goose bumps myself seeing the fat bottom of a koala waddling past the camera in a tunnel in a picture shown in Cath’s talk. Maybe the overpass just needed time? Maybe there were better designs? Cath said she doubted the new Government would spend any more money on overpasses or even if they’d spend any money on the upkeep of this one.

I came away feeling ashamed to think we were the kind of public who could be fooled into thinking a few green poles over a busy road were enough. Surely any new road or new developments should have safe wildlife crossings factored into the cost of construction? And the type of crossing that works best should be researched and prototyped? Cath’s evidence seems to point towards modified tunnels, but what about wide, treed bridges like the ones pictured here? If we fenced either side of the road to channel the wildlife towards these safe crossings, we really could save the lives of our vulnerable wildlife. Wouldn’t that be a better option? Token bridges shouldn’t be enough to keep us quiet. We want real solutions that help save the lives of real animals.

Further reading