Cape York: Cape crusaders

By Joanna Egan 30 March 2010
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Conservation combines pleasure with care on an expedition to Queensland’s far north.

“HAVE YOU GOT yourself a photo of a crocodile yet?” asks Gillian ‘Jill’ MacNicol as she navigates the ute around termite mounds and sand-goanna holes. Jill is the manager and former owner of Piccaninny Plains Sanctuary, a cattle station recently acquired by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) in partnership with the TLLF-WildlifeLink. For nearly two hours, she’s driven me on dusty tracks through melaleuca woodlands, native grasslands and floodplains of the Archer River, and we haven’t even begun to explore one corner of the 1700 sq. km property yet. She camps in Piccaninny’s isolated pockets while she grades the roads, musters wild cattle, controls the feral animal population and carries out controlled burns in an effort to conserve the property’s diverse ecosystems.

“There’s a little freshie who’s used to me fishing not far from here,” Jill says. “When I go down to the river he sits up on the bank beside me and waits for me to catch a fish. As soon as he sees me he comes straight out of the water – right at me – and I think, ‘God, he’s going to eat me’.

But he’s not – he just looks at you waiting, thinking, ‘Where’s my fish?’ Cheeky little sod.”

I’ve spent just over a week immersed in Cape York’s rainforests and plains as part of the Australian Geographic Society’s Cape to Gulf Expedition, and now, with Jill’s ute at the head, our convoy of five four-wheel-drives makes its way to the fishing spot. Right on cue, Jill’s 2 m freshwater crocodile bounds out of the water and settles on the bank just metres from where we stand.

PICCANINNY PLAINS IS THE second of three conservation areas we visit during the 14 days and 2543 km that we spend on the road – Brooklyn Sanctuary and Cape York Turtle Rescue Camp at Mapoon complete the trio.

AWC bought Piccaninny Plains from Jill and her husband Andrew in 2008. Since then Jill has been scaling down cattle operations – reducing the herd from more than 2000 head two years ago to just 500 today.

“I’ve just grown to love the place so much,” she says as we pass Green Swamp – the largest of several hundred waterholes splashed across the property. Flocks of magpie geese, plovers, cattle egrets, Burdekin ducks, spoonbills, brolgas, pygmy geese and jabirus take to the wing in turn.

“I’ve been keeping all the brumbies and the majority of the pigs out of the swamp this year so it’s still beautiful and lush… It makes you feel like your efforts are starting to pay off. I’m seeing that with the kangaroos and the wallabies too; their numbers are really building up.”

Another former cattle station, Brooklyn Sanctuary, about 100 km north-west of Cairns, has been owned and managed by AWC for the past five years. Ecologists regularly monitor the plants and animals on the 650 sq. km property, and management programs have been put into place to regenerate the varied ecosystems.

“We aim to recreate the right environment for those species that were found here in the past so they can reappear and flourish,” Brooklyn manager Mick Blackman explains as we sit around our campfire on the bed of the Mitchell River. We’re here for three days, looking for evidence of rock wallabies, helping to eradicate weeds and setting up digital cameras, that are automatically triggered when a sensor detects body heat.

“There are 50 monitoring sites on Brooklyn and what we want to do is keep track of some of the important fauna that we’ve found here, like the northern quoll,” says John Kanowski, AWC’s regional ecologist for north-east Australia. “This native carnivore is declining rapidly across the north, and we’ve got a good population of them up here in the rocky hills so we want to keep an eye on them.”

ON THE OTHER SIDE of the peninsula, Dr Col Limpus, chief scientist for the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management, is studying and protecting sea turtles.

“For at least the last 30 years almost all the clutches of eggs that have been laid along western Cape York beaches have been destroyed by pigs and dogs,” Col says. “So we’ve had a generation of failed hatchling production. The older turtles are dying off and there’s very little replacement of new adults.”

Mapoon rangers Craig Wheeler and Nicholas Woodley, both from the Yupungathi clan, monitor a 24 km stretch of coastline along Flinders Beach each morning. “Col has taught us how to identify turtles from their tracks, their eggs and their hatchlings,” Craig says. “It’s really important that we record how many turtles are nesting and find out what’s left behind. Then we can determine what’s causing all these problems.”

The most recent efforts to control the feral pig and dog populations along the Gulf coast appear to have been successful.

“The monitoring that the rangers are doing is showing us that so far this year we haven’t lost a single clutch to dogs and pigs,” Col says. “So we’ve gone from driving along the beach in the daytime and not seeing a single hatchling track, to now; where every day you drive the beach and you see where hatchlings have run across the sand.”

Source: Australian Geographic Society Yearbook 2009