Many nature lovers venture to Australia for its long coastlines and colorful reefs, vivid rainforests and iconic kangaroos and koalas. But away from the crowded, well-known travel routes of other parts of the country, adventurers can plan a trip to southern Australia where they can explore ancient volcanic plains, caves filled with fascinating bioluminescent glow worms, and spot intriguing native species such as the Tasmanian devil, quirky platypus, echidna, pademelon and even adorable fairy penguins—without having to deal with saturated tourism. 

Australia’s Wildlife is at Risk

But this special part of the world is not without its challenges. Australia’s mammal extinction record is the worst in the world—over the last two hundred years 29 mammal species have become extinct. Bushfires are unfortunately a common occurrence and seem to be escalating with climate change. There have also been devastating declines in manna gum woodlands due to high densities of koalas and changed land management. This crisis affects not only the manna gums and the koalas but also a range of endangered and vulnerable species which call this ecosystem home, such as the leafy greenhood orchid and the long-nosed potoroo. Introduced animals such as rabbits and cane toads have also upset the natural balance. Additionally, water resources are an issue. Rivers, streams, wetlands and groundwater have suffered pollution, excessive extraction, weed invasion, altered flow regimes, drainage and rubbish dumping. The more the water quality continues to degrade, the more the health of dependent plants and animals is diminished and already fragile ecosystems are further disrupted.

Pterostylis longifolia - Common Leafy Greenhood Orchid in southern Australia

The Conservation Ecology Center: Protecting the Animals of the Otways

Despite a national reserve system covering 18% of the continent, populations of threatened species continue to decline. The single largest factor limiting the ability to conserve vulnerable species is the failure to adequately understand the complex ecosystems. On the bright side, there are great efforts being made to protect precious Australian wildlife, such as the work being done by the Conservation Ecology Center, a nationally registered non-profit ecological research and conservation organization dedicated to protecting and understanding Australian ecosystems. It’s located about 3.5 hours from Melbourne in the stunning Great Ocean Road region alongside the Great Otway National Park, near where the Southern Ocean meets the deep blue Bass Strait.  This is the historic homeland of the Gadubanud people and also hosts rare animals such as the Tasmanian devil, echidna, spotted-tail quoll (commonly known as the tiger quoll), potoroo, and bandicoot. 

Lizzie Corke co-founded the Conservation Ecology Center (CEC) with her partner Shayne Neal. They and their committed team have worked tirelessly to facilitate public/ private partnerships to build effective conservation strategies that engage communities and impact real change. Her dedication has even earned her a Prime Minister’s Award for Environmentalist of the Year, and she is also the Director of Ecotourism Australia. She states, “One of the greatest risks to the survival of the threatened plants and animals of the Otways is how little we know about them. We don’t know exactly where they occur, how many of them there are, or the effects on them from a wide range of threats such as fire or predation by foxes and cats. This makes it very difficult to direct and measure conservation efforts.” 

Koala relaxing on a tree branch - Great Otway National Park.

From Potoroos to Quolls: Wildlife Research & Species Monitoring 

The Conservation Ecology Center is particularly focused on applied research for threatened species to gain insight that can help land managers to make the best decisions for conservation. While there are extensive areas of public land in Cape Otway, there is also a considerable proportion of private land, making collaboration important. The center created the Otways Threatened Species Network, bringing together the land managers who need up-to-date and relevant information with the researchers who can answer critical questions. They now have a comprehensive dataset (including over 11,000 records of threatened species) that enables them to identify key knowledge gaps and follow up with targeted research that will lead directly to conserving threatened species in the Otways.

They collect data through a variety of ways. One is the Otways Threatened Species Hotline. It helps to raise the profile of threatened species in the Otways and ensures that members of the community who have had an encounter with one of these animals can assist in their ongoing conservation. In doing so, it provides researchers and land managers with as much data as possible, improving understanding of the threatened species and ensuring that the strongest decisions are being made to ensure their survival. The quolls, for example, were rediscovered in the Otways in 2012 after no evidence for nearly a decade that this carnivorous marsupial was in the area. Thanks to the CEC receiving a call from a tourist about an odd animal visiting the back deck of their vacation house, the CEC arranged for genetic testing of the scat it left behind and the presence in the area of the thought-to-be-extinct quoll was confirmed. 

Close up view of a Tiger Quoll in Southern Australia.

They also work closely with the Otway Ark, a native mammal recovery program managed by Parks Victoria. The CEC helps with data management of information collected by a network of cameras that measures the baseline of native mammal and exotic predator activity. But cameras are not the only way that important information is collected. The Otways Conservation Dogs is a program that uses highly trained dogs to sniff out scat of the endangered species of the Otways, including long-nosed potoroos and tiger quolls. 

Efforts by locals are not the only thing helping with the conservation of Australian wildlife. International travelers can play their part through responsible ecotourism. By conscientiously choosing how and where to spend their dollars while traveling, they hold a very important role. When planning a trip to South Australia, an itinerary that includes a stop at the Conservation Ecology Center will allow visitors to sleep well knowing that they are helping to create much more than memories—they are creating a brighter future for Australian wildlife.