Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary: Held in reserve

By Karen McGhee 16 June 2009
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The non-government Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary protects a precious slice of the Kimberley, WA.

DR MALCOLM KENNEDY IS in a field biologist’s nirvana, hovering above one of the world’s last ecological frontiers – the remote central Kimberley region of Western Australia, where the opportunity for discovery is as vast as the landscape.

Perched about 80 m above the ground in the front passenger seat of a helicopter, he’s watching two dingoes weave their way through scraggy vegetation lining a shallow dry-season creekbed. The doors are off the chopper and Mal’s outstretched left hand is steadying a radio receiver while his right taps at a laptop. 

“Would have taken more than four hours to track these two on a quad [all-terrain vehicle],” he says, shouting above the racket of the rotors, as weeks of hourly GPS readings stream through the ether from a radio-collar worn by one of the dingoes to his computer’s hard drive. Locating them this way has taken 15 minutes.

Helicopter is unquestionably the best way to get around such an immense landscape, but it’s expensive, and this flying time is a rare privilege. It’s being provided by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC), for whom Mal works, to give Australian Geographic insight into the conservation organisation’s operations in Mornington Wildlife Sanctuary, in the state’s sparsely populated north. This dingo work is part of more than a dozen scientific research projects underway on Mornington by resident and visiting scientists, including investigations into the lives of rare Gouldian finches (AG 79) and purple-crowned fairy-wrens, and programs mapping vegetation and the occurrence, distributions and densities of mammal and reptile species.

Mal has radio-collared three dingoes in recent months and this one’s been walkabout for a few weeks, traipsing across a home range of many square kilometres before pairing up with the bitch now in his company. (Mal’s also radio-collared feral cats to monitor their movements.)

It’s early days for this work, and there’s a mass of raw data to be analysed, but one of the long-term aims is to assess if dingoes can regulate the densities of feral cats, one of many threats to Kimberley biodiversity. “From a conservation perspective it could tell us how important dingoes are [to feral cat numbers] and whether or not we should try to maintain their densities as a type of biological control,” says Mal.

At this stage it’s still a vague notion, but using dingoes in this way would mean asking the neighbours – mostly pastoralists running beef cattle – to reduce dingo baiting along their borders. Dingoes out here survive on a diverse diet, but they can hunt cooperatively to bring down calves. So, what makes Mal think pastoralists would even contemplate talking to the AWC about dingo control? The answer lies in the organisation’s rapid and surprising integration into the Kimberley community.


MORNINGTON IS THE second-largest non-government and non-indigenous property in Australia’s National Reserve System. The private, not-for-profit AWC bought the 3207 sq. km pastoral lease in 2001 for less than $2 million, largely through donations from supporters and some NRS program funds. Ever since, the AWC has been managing it for the purposes of biodiversity conservation, research and public education.

A young organisation with a burgeoning reputation for its dynamic approach to protecting Australia’s natural environment, the AWC was set up in the mid-1990s by Martin Copley, a successful English-born businessman. Martin’s vision was simple: protect, nurture and, where necessary, rehabilitate the environment we’re passing on to our kids and grandkids. He began buying land with high conservation value in the early 1990s and formed the AWC when he saw the need for an organisation larger than he could personally support.

Today, the organisation has almost 10,000 supporters Australia-wide, many of whom each donate $20 or so a month. But the AWC also actively courts the support of wealthy philanthropists in a way rarely before seen in Australia. This funding source has been well exploited by the conservation sector in the USA for many years, but has been barely tapped here.

With a runway big enough to land a private jet, upmarket eco-friendly facilities featuring chic safari tents, personal bathrooms and well-stocked bar fridges (not to mention a camping ground), Mornington provides a way of showcasing conservation to people used to the finer things in life. It remains, of course, quite basic; after all, this is one of the world’s most remote populated areas. But it lets those who’d prefer not to get so down and dirty see firsthand what conservation is about.

Martin remains the AWC’s chairman and the organisation now has almost 90 employees based mostly on its 20 properties covering nearly 26,000 sq. km of the Australian mainland. Mornington is one of only six set up to host and educate the public.

The AWC seeks out and buys land of high biodiversity value, at competitive market rates, and applies a businesslike and scientific approach to managing it for the plants and animals that would be expected to naturally occur there. Ecological targets are set and achievements and outcomes reported against them, to show supporters where their money goes.

It means AWC sanctuaries are more than just wildlife havens, fenced off and left alone. Just as a pastoral property might be managed to produce beef cattle, AWC sanctuaries are run to conserve and restore biodiversity, by identifying and removing threats and by reintroducing species.

AWC chief executive Atticus Fleming, a former corporate lawyer and Federal government adviser on environmental issues who says he’s been obsessed with saving endangered species since he was four years old, believes there’s an “evolution in the way conservation is being delivered in Australia”; more professional, accountable, inclusive and cooperative.

“And that’s going to mean a greater role for organisations like AWC to save species and protect ecosystems,” he says. “We’ve got to deal with these things urgently and there’s absolutely no room for people arguing about who’s responsible and whose patch it is. People have to work together and find the best way to deliver the [conservation] programs we need and get on with it.”

The AWC’s assertive and highly managed vision has its detractors, but it also has much support in both private and public sectors. On Mornington at least, the organisation’s modus operandi has generated an unprecedented level of cooperation with the neighbours, and is offering a new approach to conservation management.


IT’S A CLICHÉ, but it really is impossible to use words alone to convey the scope of the scenery in this part of the world. Mornington, in particular, is simply breathtaking: a vast area in the upper catchment of the Fitzroy River, which in full wet-season flow carries 30,000 cu. m of water per second, more water than any river in the country. The property is edged by the rugged sandstone lines of the King Leopold Ranges and liberally sprinkled with magnificent gorges, creek lines and gullies, where the plant life manages to maintain some lushness right up until the dying days of the Dry and the return of the Wet’s torrents. But savannah is the dominant vegetation here, and there are several types not well protected elsewhere in the world.

Tropical savannahs are a feature of Africa, South-East Asia, South America and parts of India. Ecologically, however, northern Australia’s – particularly those of the Kimberley – are considered outstanding on a global scale. “Most savannahs have been hopelessly degraded,” explains AWC’s national conservation and science manager, Dr Sarah Legge, who’s been based at Mornington since 2003. “In contrast, the northern Australian landscape is relatively unmodified.”

A respected biologist with a gift for explaining ecological processes, Sarah talks biodiversity to millionaires as easily as she does to campers and pastoralists. She’s patient and passionate without being demonstrative, and since arriving at Mornington she’s been listening closely to the people who’ve been here for longer than any scientist, including pastoralists such as Phil Stoker.

“Right from the word go, Sarah had frequent communication with us,” explains Phil in a characteristic Kimberley drawl. “She’d often ring and ask, ‘How do you go about this and that and what do you do?’” At 55, Phil says he’s too old to work this country. “It’s a young man’s game and you need to be fit and strong.”

He and his partners last year sold the property bordering Mornington’s north, Marion Downs, to the AWC. Initially, they weren’t keen on selling to a conservation organisation. But Phil’s experience collaborating with them on shared land-management issues such as fire control has instilled in him a respect for what the organisation is trying to achieve.

“We had five other [prospective buyers] interested in our place, all pastoralists and three from interstate,” says Phil, explaining the AWC matched the money offered by the other bidders. “But I felt it would probably be a bit irresponsible to sell to the others. I knew the AWC would look after the land. They’re going to be good for the Kimberley.”

Presently, there’s a rapidly growing commercial interest in this part of the world, not least because of the huge quantity of water that annually falls across the landscape. “We’ve got a really narrow window of opportunity here,” Atticus says.

Although the strongly community-based cooperative approach implemented at Mornington by Sarah and her colleagues was initially more a necessity than a calculated strategy, it’s working, and the AWC now regards it as an effective conservation model.

“At Mornington we’ve got people based here who work with the neighbours regularly. We do fire and cattle management together and they respect us as land managers within the region,” Atticus says. “We’re confronting the same daily challenges, whether it’s the state of the roads, flooding, cattle markets, big fires or weeds.”

Beyond the Kimberley, the AWC sees much of the continent’s northern third as strategically significant for Australian bio-diversity conservation. Australia’s tropical savannah grasslands and associated pockets of wetter refuges support a huge proportion of the continent’s animal species. Half of our bird species and about one-third of our mammal and reptile species, for example, are found there, including a large proportion that occur nowhere else in the world.

But, as biologists have been documenting for well over a decade, there has been an alarming east-to-west pattern of decline in animal and plant species across the continent’s north. Hardest hit have been the many small birds and mammals that rely directly on a diet of grass seeds, including the Gouldian finch, of which one of the most robust remaining wild populations is found on Mornington.

The introduction of large herbivores – mostly cattle, horses and donkeys – has had a huge impact. So too has the rise of smaller feral animals, such as cats, although so far the Kimberley remains rabbit- and fox-free. And weeds have been spreading with disastrous consequences. But one of the biggest threats to biodiversity across the region in recent decades has been changing fire patterns. It’s widely accepted that fire has been a component of northern Australian ecosystems for millennia; in fact, many northern plant and animal species depend on fire for germination or food. But hotter fires that damage areas far larger than previously have become more frequent during the mid-to-late dry season.

It’s a huge problem for pastoralists and conservationists alike and so, through a project called EcoFire, Sarah and her AWC team are working with 13 other central Kimberley properties, using government funds, to spearhead a regional approach that coordinates fire control across more than 50,000 sq. km.

Through this collaborative project, many small fires are lit early in the Dry, when they’re more easily controlled, to create fire-breaks that stop the rampage of late dry-season burns. Rather than seeing the whole landscape wiped out every second year or so, it encourages burning in smaller patches at varying intervals, resulting in a diversity of burnt, unburnt and recovering patches that better supports pastoralism and biodiversity.

Satellite imagery shows that, after two years, the approach is already working to reduce the once catastrophic impact of dry-season fires. “We have been able to influence land management over a much bigger area than the property itself,” explains Sarah. “But…I don’t think we could have done this if we weren’t here and part of the community.”


IT’S ANOTHER PERFECT dry-season central Kimberley day: a temperature in the high 30s is made tolerable by low humidity and the blue sky, etched with wisps of cloud. AWC staff – committed, young, knowledgeable recruits hand-picked by Sarah – are escorting a small group of “foundation supporters” to Dimond Gorge and a brief canoe paddle down the Fitzroy River.

Foundation supporters each donate at least $10,000 annually over five years to the AWC; this group is here for a long weekend to learn firsthand how their money is spent. It is, however, no privileged freebie: they’ve each footed the bill to cover their own travel and accommodation costs.

A couple of hundred metres downstream the group’s attention is drawn to indicators on the walls of the gorge of the location for a controversial dam, now abandoned, that was mooted during the 1990s. A collective sigh ripples across the water: a tragedy averted. The group pulls in for lunch and a refreshing dip at a crocodile-free hole with a waterfall, and takes the opportunity to extol the majestic beauty of the Fitzroy and the virtues of the AWC’s approach.

The observations of Perth-based businessman Julian Burt are typical: “They’ve recognised there’s a crisis and they’re dealing with it by setting objectives and having goals and meeting outcomes.”

Julian, who’s known about the AWC since its earliest days but only recently pledged his financial support, finds the organisation’s approach resonates with the way he likes to do business. Julian has a particular interest in birds and has been keen to hear about Mornington’s avian assets. He used to spend a lot of time in national parks but is now too busy with the engineering company he runs in partnership with his brother.

That night we dine with AWC scientists and other staff under a full moon on the savannah. Talk again turns to the remarkable success of the approach showcased at Mornington. Sarah further explains the need for it to be underpinned by good science. Atticus discusses the politics of land management. And Mal Kennedy reflects on how the sanctuary is nurturing the environmental perspectives of a new generation: “One of the big benefits of a place like Mornington is that it not only provides education and an important conservation role, it offers a lot of leaping-off points for young scientists and [anyone] with an interest in conservation.”

Julian, too, sees the bigger picture: “I don’t think this is a ‘green’ issue any more,” he says. “It’s common sense. Everyone should be green these days and you shouldn’t be tagged like that. You should be tagged as a thinking human being.”

Source: Australian Geographic April – June 2009