Up in the remote and isolated high country of the Barrington Tops, only a three and a half hour drive from Sydney and amidst the subalpine flora of snow gums, mountain gums, grass trees and lomandra, is a project that is helping save one of Australia’s most beloved native animals from extinction.
Devil Ark is the home of mainland Australia’s largest insurance population of Tasmanian devils, and the location was selected because it so closely resembles the climate and terrain of their home island.
Tim Faulkner, general manager of Australian Reptile Park and Devil Ark, and well known for his appearances on Bondi Vet and his own show The Wildlife of Tim Faulkner, is spending the day with myself and photographer Bronwyn Ellis, showing us around the facility and sharing his prodigious knowledge of all things related to native animals and their conservation.
In 1996, devil facial tumour disease (DFTD), an ugly and horrific fatal disease affecting Tasmanian devils, was first found. By 2003 it was recognised DFTD was a significant problem, and devils were transported to the mainland as the start of an insurance population.
It’s now 20 years later and 85 to 90 per cent of wild devils in Tasmania are gone. The species is now listed as endangered.
Building an ark
The Australian Reptile Park on the Central Coast of NSW was one of the first organisations to receive devils when they were first transported to the mainland.
“We went in search of land and we found this property up here,” Tim says.
The land in question was donated by the Packer family for the organisation’s use, 3000 hectares in full, yet Devil Ark only occupies a very small section of it, at this stage.
“When people hear that name, they think we’re loaded,” Tim says. “We’ve never received a financial cent. But that’s not a gripe!”.
Devil Ark was founded by John Weigel, who, along with his wife Robyn, is the managing director of the Reptile Park. However, Tim has been responsible for “all of the grunt work” behind the project. He even relocated his wife and his first son, a newborn at the time, to live on the site for a year when it was built, and he still visits regularly.
The devils are kept in enclosures so large that they maintain their wild behavioural traits. There are currently around 150 devils, and since 2006 they’ve bred around 300 joeys.
Devils make a lot of noise, but it's because they're as blind as bats.Tim Faulkner
“We’ve perfected a model that is species banking an insurance population. We can do it cost efficiently, we can do it retaining the wild behavioural traits of animals – critical if we’re going to release them long term. We have good, GREAT, above average reproductive output.
“We are the silver bullet backstop that, if the worst case unfolds in Tasmania, we have an insurance population,” Tim says.
Some of the devils bred at the Ark are sent back to Tasmania.
“Not to diseased landscapes,” Tim explains, “but to fenced areas, peninsulas, islands. We can’t justify sending devils to death by tumour. The concern is still that if the one in a million gets over a fence. It’s very different to having a population in NSW.”
Fences at the Ark, Tim tells us, “are our business”. Surrounding the 30 hectares that currently houses the project are perimeter fences. Each enclosure inside the perimeter fence is also fenced. The fencing costs $150 a metre; so far they’ve built 18 kilometres of fencing with plans to fence the rest of the 3000 hectares in stages.
We can’t justify sending devils to death by tumour.Tim Faulkner
“We’re about to to fence 400 hectares, and then we get on the campaign trail to raise funds,” Tim says.
“Our operations are incredibly minimalistic.”
They need to be – Devil Ark is a not-for-profit conservation organisation. The Reptile Park supports the operation by providing directors, general management, operations, curatorial and staff wages.
“We get very limited government funding. Our funding is from philanthropists, and corporate and individual donors. When funding comes in it goes to fences, and the Reptile Park raises funds and donates food, water, wages, motor vehicle expenses and the like,” Tim explains.
Tourism is critical to the existence of Devil Ark. Visitors can book guided tours of the facility, similar to the one we are getting.
“A lot of the people who come are already Devil Ark supporters,” Tim says. “We have one avenue for overnight accommodation on the property and we do tours by booking. Every Saturday we’ll have a pre-booked tour with a limited amount of people, because it needs to be a very personal experience.”
“For about eight months of the year we’ve got joeys, which is exactly not now,” Tim tells us.
Of course. We are disappointed, but that doesn’t last long. It is late afternoon and we are led into an enclosure to feed a group of adults.
They are unbearably cute - the size of a little dog with nuggetty bodies, long whiskers, bright red ears when the sun shines through them, and an awkward, waddling walk that is a surprise when you first see it. And they make a lot of noise. You can’t help but fall in love with them.
If you have booked a guided tour, you will also watch the devils feed. But first, you have an interactive experience – playing with young devils, perhaps even helping out with bottle feeding, depending on the time of year. You’ll also get to visit Aussie Ark, a new sister program breeding insurance populations of six other native endangered and threatened species – Eastern quolls, long-nosed potoroos, rufous bettongs, Southern brown bandicoots, long-nosed bandicoots and Parma wallabies.
At the end of the three hour tour, you get to play with the young devils again. And, if you’re really lucky and it’s the right time of day, you’ll get taken to see a very special sight.
“There’s a pond just down the road that gets between six to eight platypus on it every afternoon, so we’ll often take people down there,” Tim says.
“We’ve probably had 1500 to 2000 people through so far. The feedback is just extraordinary.”
It certainly is an experience you can’t get anywhere else. Bronwyn and I vow to come back. When there are joeys.
To find out more or book a guided tour visit www.devilark.org,au.