Our Victorian National Youth Leadership Council (NYLC) member Asitha is working in Cape Otway on the Great Ocean. This is a day in his life!
Its 7am, I lift a hand to turn off my alarm. This is when I regret not sleeping earlier the previous night. Too late now, a big day lies ahead. I am working as a conservationist at the Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway on the beautiful Great Ocean Road, south-east Australia. It’s a beautiful office, with temperate rainforests, crystal clear streams and numerous waterfalls.
Today’s main task involves setting up camera traps in the Great Otway National Park to monitor for threatened species such as tiger quolls and long-nosed potoroos as well as feral species such as cats and foxes. Camera traps are remote sensing cameras that are triggered by motion. This means if an animal walks in front of the sensor is triggered and a photo is taken. These cameras are our eyes in the forest, they allow conservationists and researchers to be in the forest every minute of the day. Over the next few days we will set up 50 of these cameras in the Otways.
Rainjacket, check. Waterproof pants, check. GPS, check. Emergency satellite beacon, check. First aid kit, check. Cameras and equipment check. We are ready to go. It is important to be prepared for long and tiring days when out in the field. The terrain can be rough and the weather erratic. It’s certainly not a job for unenthusiastic people! But the rewards far outweigh the negatives. The landscapes I get to work in are stunning and the views breathtaking. There’s abundant wildlife to be seen and you are helping to protect it! Also, I would much rather be out in the field rather than be in the office doing statistics on Microsoft Excel!
When we reach our first site we pack our backpacks with the gear needed to set up the first camera. Camera, bait, lock and key to ensure the security of the camera. We use the GPS to navigate to the setup location. If we are lucky, the trek from the car to the loation is a straightforward one through the temperate rainforest. If we are unlucky, the bush can be thick with fallen trunks and branches everywhere. Obtaining a sure footing on rotting branches can be tough, and there have been many times we have slipped straight through the trunk of a rotting tree. Sometimes we would lose balance and fall on our backs. One time I remember grabbing onto a trunk to haul myself up part of the track. But it was a dead trunk with no roots and the soil and it came crashing down towards us! Luckily my colleague and I had time to step out of the way! The terrain can be so steep that in certain areas we can’t climb down. On such occasions, we just sit down and slide to the bottom!
Once we reach the site we need to clear the area of grass and twigs to ensure the camera isn’t triggered by them moving in the wind. We set up the bait station and point the camera towards it. Then the camera is locked into place against a tree and switched on. A test to ensure the camera is working and then we trek back up to the car, drive to the next location and repeat the process. If we are efficient we can setup 20 cameras per day, which means it takes us three days to setup the total of 50 cameras.
When we get back to the Conservation Ecology Centre we need to feed our captive potoroos, sugar gliders and quolls. We chop up some bananas, apples and oranges and fill up four bowls. Add in some muesli and protein supplement and that takes care of the potoroos and gliders. Occasionally we would go into the glider enclosure at night with our fingers dipped in honey. The greedy gliders come down and lick the honey straight off our fingers!
The centre has two quolls in captivity; one tiger quoll, the largest carnivorous marsupial on the mainland. It is extremely rare, once thought to be extinct in the Otways. The eastern quoll is extinct on the mainland, the effects of introduced ferals such as cats and foxes taking it toll on the species. The eastern quoll still hangs on in Tasmania, where the presence if Tasmanian devils helps control predation by ferals. It is estimated that a feral cat can kill upto six native animals per night. Given that there are around 2 million cats across Australia, spread around 99.8% of its landmass, it is not a wonder that nearly 30 Australian mammals have gone extinct since European settlement. The larger tiger quoll is asleep under a log. It will wake up to a tasty treat of three chicken legs. The eastern quoll needs just one chicken leg. It too is resting in its den.
At last a tiring day has come to an end. I am looking forward to a warm shower and a good dinner. Although the work is tiring there is no better feeling knowing that your work is helping to save some incredibly rare and endangered animals. It’s one of the biggest reasons that gets me out of bed every day. I suppose we are working towards a day we wouldn’t need to do this, when all animals are protected and there are no cats and foxes to worry about. But until that day arrives I will keep doing what I do, even if it takes me my whole life to get there.
Asitha Samarawickrama is an environmental scientist and a member of the Jane Goodall Institute Australia’s National Youth Leadership Council. He has interests in wildlife conservation, illegal wildlife trade, palm oil, climate change and marine pollution. You can follow his work here on Twitter and Instagram. All photos in this story were taken by the author and are his property.