At Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary you can spot animals that haven’t existed in their natural habitat for more than a century. Now the ANU experts behind this conservation experiment are taking it a step further into the community.  

It’s hard to make head or tail of the shingleback lizard. Its snubby behind looks very similar to its front and, unlike other reptiles, it gives birth to live young rather than laying eggs.

On the edge of a suburb in Canberra’s north, shinglebacks have some weird and wonderful housemates.

The dunnart, a diminutive marsupial, has no need to drink — ever.

The silky golden sun moth doesn’t have a mouth and will only fly with the sun’s warmth on its wings.

Known as the ‘murderbird’, the bush stone-curlew has a haunting call that sounds like a human scream. When threatened, this lanky avian strikes odd poses or completely freezes.

Head or tail? A shingleback lizard. Photo: Rob D the Pastry Chef/Shutterstock.com

Just as every narrative needs a villain, every healthy ecosystem requires a predator, in this case the eastern quoll. They are excellent hunters but notoriously lazy; like the scavenging housemate that eats your food, they prefer finding carcases to hunting.

But perhaps the most beloved roomie is the eastern bettong. This ecosystem engineer is hyperactive at night, digging obsessively to move up to eight kilograms of soil before sunrise. They are also handy with their rat-like tail, curling it around bundles of leaves and sticks to build nests.

Raising expectations

What is this motley crew of creatures doing within cooee of McMansions in suburban Canberra?

They are residents of Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, on the fringe of Throsby near the northeastern border of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where the paint has just dried on new family homes.

Houses in the suburb of Throsby seen on the other side of a grassy landscape with tall trees

Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

The sanctuary has occupied this site for almost two decades. In this time it’s been an open-air lab for conservation experiments led by researchers at the ANU Fenner School for Environment and Society in partnership with the ACT Government. Thanks to these projects, visitors can now spot animals that haven’t existed in their natural habitat for more than a century.

“The Australian environment is going downhill and we’ve got this issue of what’s called ‘shifting baselines’,” Professor Adrian Manning, who has headed the sanctuary experiment since its inception in 2004, explains. “That’s where our expectations get lower and lower over multiple generations as the environment gets worse and worse.

“When species are lost from our local environment, we lose our memory of them and then our expectations get lower of what environmental quality looks like. We’re trying really hard to reverse this sad, low expectations trend.”

Clearance of bushland and loss of animals’ native habitat have long accompanied development in Australia, one of the most urbanised countries in the world. We have a terrible record of extinction and a bloating list of threatened species: 1,973, which is a 43 per cent increase since 2000, according to the ANU-authored Australia’s Environment Report 2022.

Right now, 5.7 per cent of Australian plants and 5.9 per cent of animals are threatened with extinction.

In this context, dense suburbia and a woodland wildlife sanctuary seem like strange neighbours. But Mulligans Flat has been home to some conservation triumphs, including reintroducing eastern bettongs and eastern quolls to the Australian mainland.

An eastern bettong standing on the ground. It is a little marsupial with brown fur, pink ears, dark eyes and a little purple nose.
ANU researcher Belinda Wilson smiles at the camera. She is wearing a head torch and a dark puffer jacket, and cradling an eastern quoll wrapped in a maroon blanket.
Belinda Wilson descends a set of stairs from a shed made out of corrugated iron. She is carrying a large square case in each hand and is dressed in dark clothes and a khaki cap.
An eastern quoll in the grass at night. It has dark fur with white spots all over its body.

An eastern bettong at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

Eastern bettongs were driven to extinction on the mainland by foxes, feral cats and farmers who lashed out at the mini marsupials for digging up potato crops. Those in Tasmania survived. But after a century of relegation, the population at the sanctuary has flourished to more than 100 following reintroduction in 2012. The bettong is now so cherished by Canberrans that it was only a whisker from becoming the capital’s official mammal emblem in a 2018 public vote.

The eastern quoll has been a trickier customer, but through persistence and adaptation ANU researcher Belinda Wilson was able to boost reintroduction survival rates to 92 per cent.

“This is a really exciting result and gives us the courage to expect that eastern quolls will make a comeback in the ACT and beyond,” she says.

Under the spotlight

So, while their human neighbours are watching Married at First Sight, what dramas are unfolding among these quirky characters at night?

Wilson’s infrared video provides a Big Brother-esque glimpse into this animal funhouse after dark. A quoll mother, Indiana, is amusingly besieged by five cute and clumsy babies climbing on her back. When shared on social media, her plight as a burdened parent resonated. “How on earth she gets anything done is beyond me,” someone commented.

Manning recognises the power of social media as a tool to engage the community in conservation.

“We often think about David Attenborough and meerkats but look at these, our own quolls, how engaging is that! We’ve found that social media really cuts through with all sorts of demographics and provides an opportunity to talk to people, whoever they are and whatever their views, about the environment,” Manning says.

But the next evolution of community engagement at the sanctuary is very much in real life rather than virtual.

For many years, Mulligans Flat has been open to the public 24/7, offering free access to walking trails winding through Australia’s first and largest box-gum grassy woodland area managed for conservation and cleared of foxes, cats, rabbits and hares.

Twilight tours transport visitors back in time to experience the bush as it was 100 years ago; bettong encounters ensure you get up close with the elusive nocturnal critter; and ranger-led story time adventures enthral kids.

A wooden boardwalk leads across a grassy landscape. There are trees and fog in the distance.

Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

“We have been able to provide first-hand experiences in this special woodland landscape and with wonderful creatures like bettongs, which can be a catalyst for changing people’s thinking,” Manning says.

“Because we’re so close to politicians here in Canberra, this includes decision-makers.

“Conservation is as much about people’s thinking as it is about the place inside the fence.”

Another step forward

The recently opened Wildbark learning centre — a stunning structure of rammed earth and wood cladding — is a gateway to the sanctuary and another step towards changing people’s minds.

It enhances the immersive wildlife experiences on offer and further embeds conservation in community life. It turns out inspiring people of all ages to care for Australia’s landscapes and wildlife can come with a decent coffee and fresh produce for brunch. The centre also provides spaces for research and hosts school visits and private events.

“We’re trying to make nature and exposure to threatened species as accessible as possible, which in itself has broken down the culture within the conservation community,” Dr Jason Cummings, Chief Executive Officer of the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust, says.

“The traditional mindset in conservation is that threatened species should be hidden and kept away from the community because it’s too dangerous to engage.”

An exterior angle of the Wildbark learning centre against the backdrop of trees and morning mist.
The Mulligans Flat Woodland sanctuary at sunrise, shrouded in mist, with trees in the distance. There is a signpost with a cut out in the shape of a marsupial with a long tail.
A body of water at Mulligans Flat, reflecting the blue of the sky above. There are leafless trees along the bank.
Nancy the bettong curled up in a crevasse in a log. She has brown fur and black eyes.

Wildbark learning centre. Photo: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

When exploring Wildbark and the sanctuary, visitors are walking in the footsteps of the ancestors of Traditional Custodians, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people. This Country was a significant meeting place for neighbouring nations, the Gundungurra and Wiradyuri peoples, who gathered for ceremonies, trade, marriage and law/lore.

With the efforts of Manning, Wilson, Cummings and many others, this land will continue to be a meeting place. Of a different kind, but one that sustains Country and community. If more Australians who live in cities and suburbs understand and care for animals and their habitat, we will notice when change is afoot. We will have higher expectations of people in power to protect the precious biodiversity that is part of our daily lives.

Wildbark is a joint effort of ANU, ACT Government, Woodlands and Wetlands Trust, and the Odonata Foundation.

Top image: Tracey Nearmy/ANU

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