By John Massingham, Operations Manager, Dr Tom Sayers, Wildlife Ecologist and Toby Tresidder, Grants Coordinator
Covering 300,000 hectares of the Kimberley, Charnley River–Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary is situated on the Traditional Lands of the Ngarinyin People. Charnley protects a diverse array of habitats and the sandstone ranges, rainforest valleys and savanna woodlands are home to many threatened species and species found nowhere else in Australia.
Despite declines elsewhere, threatened mammals such as Widjingnarri (Northern Quolls), Golden Bandicoots, and Warrmuna (Northern Brushtail Possums) persist in the region, and areas such as the Artesian Range continue to provide refuge for a suite of endemics including tiny Yaali (Monjons), elusive Black Grasswrens, and feisty Rough-scaled Pythons. Importantly, the sanctuary is located in the only part of mainland Australia to have had no mammal extinctions. Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s (AWC) extensive Ecohealth program monitors these species, in turn informing the organisation’s science and conservation land management activities. Charnley also serves as the hub for AWC’s north-west fire management program, delivering a dramatic reduction in the frequency and intensity of late dry season wildfires across 6.1 million hectares of the Kimberley.
Despite its remote location, Charnley is a strategic centre for AWC’s conservation efforts. Situated on the Traditional Lands of the Ngarinyin People of the Wanjina-Wunggurr Community, Charnley lies to the north-west of Mornington– Marion Downs Sanctuary and Tableland Partnership Area and is nestled between the Wilinggin and Dambimangari Partnership Areas and Yampi Sound Training Area. All-told, these lands represent a footprint of 4.3 million hectares on which AWC and our partners undertake scientific and conservation land management work. These efforts enhance conservation values and protect important habitat for threatened and endemic wildlife. These actions also support AWC’s mission: to effectively conserve all Australian animal species and the habitats in which they live.
Working in challenging conditions
Currently Charnley’s operations are housed in a 60-year-old homestead and campground, never intended to support such complex functions. The Kimberley’s intense tropical monsoonal climate poses additional challenges. The facilities do not have extensive air conditioning and whilst temperatures are bearable during most of the dry season, once the oppressive heat and humidity of the late dry season arrives, staff have to use temporary air-conditioned rooms. The homestead’s air-conditioned office is often transformed into a makeshift dormitory at night when extra people need to be accommodated. When the rains finally arrive in late December, much of the region floods, leaving helicopter and light aircraft as the only viable transportation options. These challenges reduce capacity for effective conservation, as staff aren’t able to be on the ground undertaking key programs.
The project: immediate infrastructure
Recognising Charnley’s strategic importance and the importance of supporting hard-working and dedicated field staff, AWC is investing in upgrades to boost capacity to deliver conservation outcomes across the Kimberley and to raise accommodation standards. Work has begun on upgrading the site’s aging water and septic systems. The site’s electrical system is also getting attention thanks to a grant from Schneider Electric Pacific Foundation. A 69-kilowatt solar array has been installed with inverters, batteries (56 kilowatt-hours, with upgrade capacity to 140 kilowatt-hours), and backup generators to reduce the site’s reliance on diesel and to power the next stage of Charnley’s evolution.
The project: a world-class Kimberley Conservation Hub
One of the most exciting aspects of this evolution is the planned Kimberley Conservation Hub. AWC has worked closely with the Ngarinyin People to design a set of facilities to meet growing conservation efforts. Over the next three years, AWC aims to build research and office amenities, meeting and training spaces, housing, and visitor engagement infrastructure. The Kimberley Conservation Hub is expected to include:
This expanded base of operations will allow AWC staff and our partners to spend more time on the sanctuary, provide greater opportunities for Traditional Owner collaboration, and give supporters more opportunities to see the impacts of their generosity first-hand. This significant project is partially funded but will require further support to reach its full potential to deliver positive outcomes for collaborative and effective conservation at scale.
Despite the site’s current limitations, over the last seven years, AWC ecologists have compiled a comprehensive and growing ecological inventory and established baseline data on key species to enable the measurement of the sanctuary’s overall ecological health. With much of the property accessible only by helicopter and most surveys requiring several nights of camping, staff are still learning about the abundance, diversity, and distribution of plants and animals found on the sanctuary.
One of the most direct threats to this diversity is wildfire. The intensity and scale of late dry season wildfires in the Kimberley and the resulting degradation of habitat is recognised as a major factor driving the decline of the region’s threatened species. AWC and our partners deliver the north-west fire management program during the early dry season across 6.1 million hectares. During the late dry season, AWC staff and partners conduct a fire suppression program to further limit the extent of severe wildfires across 4.3 million hectares, with a focus on protecting high-value habitat. The program has delivered a decrease in the frequency and severity of devastating late dry season wildfires with significant, positive biodiversity outcomes.
AWC Regional Ecologist Dr Skye Cameron is excited about the benefits the Kimberley Conservation Hub will deliver: ‘Having a central localised facility will only enhance and foster increased collaboration with partners and other stakeholders. With a central meeting point, training facility and research centre, we’ll be able to launch some really exciting discovery programs and influence all sorts of conservation outcomes.’
The facilities will also support further research collaborations with universities, not-for-profits, the WA Department of Biodiversity Conservation and Attractions, government partners, and community organisations. Access to a training area will strengthen fire management coordination with the North Kimberley Land Conservation District Committee and the Kimberley Land Council.
Strong partnerships and collaboration will be essential as AWC continues to build capacity to deliver conservation on a landscape scale across the Kimberley. Developing purpose-built facilities in the heart of the region is the next step in scaling up conservation efforts and outcomes.
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