The devil’s in the detail of sustainability
Meet the Aussie conservationist whose attempt to save the Tasmanian devil has evolved into a greater rescue mission.
Building a solar powered ark to save the devils
When devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) started wiping out the Tasmanian devil population, Tim Faulkner knew he and his team needed to find a new way to stave off extinction. Fast.
In the early to mid-1990s, the total estimated population of Tasmanian devils was 130,000–150,000. Since the emergence of DFTD in the mid ‘90s, which prohibits the animals from eating or drinking, it’s caused the devil population to plummet to as low as 10,000.
In 2010 Tim, General Manager of the Australian Reptile Park on the NSW Central Coast, realised existing repopulation efforts weren’t efficient enough.
“We had brought more than 50 non-diseased devils from Tasmania to the reptile park, but that wasn’t going to stop extinction,” he says. “We had to move away from the traditional models of captive management if we were going to save these animals.”
“And that’s when we came up with the idea to create the Ark.”
A reliable space to thrive
The next year, Tim and his team helped launch Devil Ark, a 500ha fenced-in area 1,350 metres above sea level in the hills of Barrington Tops in New South Wales. That January, the first 44’founder’ devils were released into the sanctuary. There were two main goals: to maintain an ’insurance population’ in case wild devils went extinct, and to produce a ’harvest population’ to be released back into the wild.
The Ark provided ample space for the devils – something that had been missing at the Reptile Park.
“Devils can be really challenging,” Tim says. “You can’t keep them too close together or else they won’t breed and they’ll hurt each other.
“But with the right space, and the right protection, the devils have showed us they’ll do what they’ve always done, and that’s get along, breed and repopulate.”
Since the launch, more than 390 have been born and raised through the program.
Shaping the future for all animals
Unfortunately, it’s not just Tasmanian devils that have faced extinction here in Australia. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Australia has the world’s worst mammal extinction rate. In March, the Australian government acknowledged the extinction of 13 more species, bringing the country’s total to 34.
As dozens of Tasmanian devil babies – called joeys – were born in the Ark each year, Tim realised their team could help other endangered species, too.
So in 2017 Devil Ark expanded to Aussie Ark. Tim says the team moved in 15 ’flagship species’, including rock wallabies, bandicoots, potoroos, quolls, turtles and frogs – all of which are endangered. Today, he says 40 endangered species call Aussie Ark home.
The program now features more than 2000ha of natural bush sanctuary and runs guided tours for the public.
Staying sustainable with renewable energy
The isolated Barrington Tops habitat is the perfect environment for an animal sanctuary – but less than ideal for electrical connectivity.
Because of this, the Devil Ark team used to use a petrol generator to run their operations. But in March 2020 Devil Ark had a solar power and battery system installed. Now everything from office computers and lighting to heat boxes in brush-tailed rock wallaby homes and equipment such as two-way radios, microchipping devices and field tools are all powered by renewable energy .
“We’re a very sustainable organisation by virtue of what we do – we’re out in the middle of nowhere,” Tim says.
“So solar power has been so good for us because it’s reduced our costs and, of course, it’s good for the world.”
Saving Australia’s wild places
Tim, now President of Aussie Ark, is one of the most recognisable names in Australian conservation, having appeared on TV shows Bondi Vet and The Wild Life of Tim Faulkner. He was named the 2015 Australian Geographic Conservationist of the Year for his work at Devil Ark.
In his 20-plus years of work in zoology and conservation, Tim’s come to learn that saving species is about more than caring for the animals themselves. It’s about caring for Australia’s “wild places.”
“There’s no point having empty forests, which is what we’re trending toward with Australian mammals,” he says. “Forests are meant to be full of life, but our wild places are ecological ghost towns right now.”
He says investing time and resources into these natural habitats will ward off extinction for endangered animals while also providing a cleaner, natural world in which everybody can live.
Considering Australia’s geographic location, Tim says this is vital.
“We’ve been isolated from the rest of the world forever,” he says. “You don’t find our platypus, echidnas, quolls, devils or possums anywhere else. When they go, they’re gone. Extinction is permanent.
“But that’s why we’re here, to keep an eye on the little guys and make sure somebody is looking out for them.”
Supporting sustainable zoos
In addition to powering the work of Tim and the rest of the Aussie Ark team, AGL has also partnered with Zoos South Australia to create more sustainable homes for endangered animals. Solar panel installation at Adelaide and Monarto Zoos helps generate the electricity needed to keep endangered pandas cool and comfortable all year round, while reducing carbon emissions.