By Jack Ashby, on 27 January 2011
A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 1
From April 2010 I spent about five months undertaking several zoological field projects across Australia. I worked with government agencies, universities and NGOs on conservation and ecology studies ranging from Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, the effect of fire, rain and introduced predators on desert ecology and how to poison cats. This series of blog posts is a delayed account of my time in the field.
Looking down at the world’s most remote city from Kings Park – Perth’s botanic garden and municipal parkland – one could easily think it was Tokyo – sky scrapers and smog, thick smog. But zooming out you notice the river, and the esplanade, and breathing in you realise it isn’t smog but smoke from the burning farmland up in the hills.
Currowongs instead of crows, wattlebirds instead of pigeons, Caspian gulls instead of black-backed gulls and the pelicans and cockatoos instead of nothing really.
Six hours later the bus delivered me to the south-western tourist town of Albany (not pronounced Awlbany, but rather more like the guys’ name-bany). It was the evening of Anzac Day and everything was closed so I didn’t eat. Remembrance is big in Albany; it’s the port that the Australian fleet left from on their way to Gallipoli.
I’m here to work with ecologists from the Western Australian Government’s Department of Environment and Conservation. The task is to test a new cat poison in a remote national park along the south coast. Since Europeans arrived in Australia their native wildlife has been being eaten by the predators we introduced. Domestic cats and foxes are massive problems and have already driven many species and populations to extinction. There is no good reason for either of them to be in Australia – cats are only there to comfort people, and foxes were introduced for hunting, as if there weren’t enough things to hunt there already.
There has been some success in controlling foxes using a dry bait laced with poison called 1080 – derived from a Western Australian plant. Since the native animals evolved alongside the plant they are not susceptible to these baits. The problem is that feral cats only nibble on the dry baits and don’t take enough poison to kill them. The team I joined was testing a sausage bait with an extremely high dose of 1080 – hopefully high enough to kill cats even if they only nibbled. The field test sought to test whether the dose was high enough to poison native animals, and whether cats would actually pick it up in the wild.
Before I arrived the Fitzgerald River National Park had been seeded with the poisoned chipolatas by helicopter. Feral cats and a range of native mammals – quolls (mongoose-like marsupial carnivores – the top native predator), dibblers (marsupial versions of rats) and bush rats (native rodents) had been trapped, had radio collars attached and re-released.
The Fitz is about 330,000 hectares, and only about ten of each species had been collared. A government ecologist and I had the next week to find them all and see if any of them had died, and if they had, whether it was the poison that killed them. It would be the next day that we started our search. Trying to make ourselves comfortable in the sheep-shearers’ quarters at a nearby farm it was clear that my stint in Australia wasn’t going to be luxurious. Reflecting on the dozens of poisoned mice carcasses littering the floor of the shack, I wondered what the government would do if we found we had poisoned the rare native wildlife.