Refuge: Tim Flannery on past and place in nature conservation

Refuge: Tim Flannery on past and place in nature conservation

Home. Often our first source of connection with something other than people, it’s something many of us across the world have in common. Whether it’s connection to a specific place or a feeling of home, it runs deep within us as we carry it through life. Importantly, it can also make or break our affinity with nature.

Whether it’s a childhood spent in a forest nearby or simply collecting insects in the backyard, fostering a connection with place is undoubtedly linked to experiences in nature. These connections can stay with us, shaping our interactions with the world over our lifetime. Strong ties to home and place undoubtedly influenced Tim Flannery’s lifelong foray in environmental work. ‘My first memory of where I grew up [around Sandringham, Melbourne] was this beautiful bushland… rich in birds, frogs and reptiles.’

Observing Tim as he vividly recounts his early years around Bayside Melbourne—his ‘refuge’ as he calls it—it’s clear those experiences still affect him. The excitement is infectious. ‘It was just this beautiful environment. I spent most of my time in the water, watching the migrations of sardines, sharks and barracuda when they’d all come together at the first hint of spring. The water was so cold, it was crystal clear, and these massive waves of sardines would come up the bay and they’d be followed by barracuda and sharks. It was just the most amazing time, incredible.’

Image: Text Publishing

These days, Tim Flannery spends his time advocating for action against climate change. But it was his experiences as a local Melbourne lad that shaped his passion for the environment. We sat down with Tim to discuss this, and why connection with place is fundamental to inspiring a love of nature.

Intimate knowledge of a place also brings with it the ability, and perhaps responsibility, to see changes more clearly than anyone else. Just as Tim fondly acknowledges the nature around his childhood, he also laments how it has changed. ‘It’s been a lifelong struggle. I came back to Melbourne four years ago and thought great, I’ll go back and dive in some of my favourite places where there’s rocky reefs and other stuff. All gone.’

‘I just thought wow, this place has undergone a massive shift in my lifetime… It’s quite distressing.’

Much of our conversation revolves around the phenomenon of different environmental baselines—that what is the “normal” nature for some is destitute for others. But it also works in the opposite sense. Tim explains, using Melbourne’s Merri Creek as an ‘amazing’ example of restoration work, that connection to place is fundamental to understanding historical change as well as taking ownership of the solution.

It’s these little, local scale achievements that Tim believes are key for engaging people in Australia’s plants and animals more generally. ‘I think it’s great for people to be able to see something [positive], rather than the ongoing destruction, you know? Kind of like, people are used to seeing absolutely nothing, or what little is there going…even [conserving] one tree can be a focal point for people.’

Fundamental to this, however, is, as Tim states bluntly, ‘shoving the problem in their face.’ The logic being that unless people awaken to the issue, there will be little impetus for conservation action.

Image: Australian Geographic

Failure to do this can have devastating consequences, too. Tim recounts an experience he had from an old advisor, Harold Cogger, about the decline of Ashmore Reef’s sea snakes. ‘When Harold surveyed the Ashmore Reef for sea snakes, he found the world’s greatest diversity of sea snakes. But, when he went back ten years later, two endemic species were gone and never seen again. And there were hardly any sea snakes of any sort to be seen. Why? What happened to them? What happened in those ten years? No one knows.’

‘Do you read about extinct sea snakes in Australia as part of your biodiversity reading? No… I think that’s probably more concerning.’

So, how do we move forward from this? How do we conserve what’s left and restore what was, but also allow adaptation for the future? Tim sees the knowledge of what once was as an immense opportunity. ‘It gives you something to hark back to. Something to aim for. A lot of people would look out here and see all these introduced trees and think “this is fantastic.” Not knowing what was once here.’ Without historical knowledge, Tim suggests, finding a common conservation goal is difficult.

However, scattered through Australia’s natural history books are thousands of potential conservation projects. And it’s these that inspire some of Tim’s hopes for the future. ‘When you read John Batman’s account of coming to Melbourne, he talks about a flight of geese. I originally thought he was talking about magpie geese, but I think now they were more likely to have been Cape Barren geese. There were geese, brolgas, and that sort of thing. So the wetlands around Melbourne used to be absolutely amazing. There’s probably no reason why you couldn’t… do more with those!’

Further afield, there are some carnivores from Australia’s fossil record that Tim would love to see given a second chance. ‘Ultimately, what I’d love to do is reintroduce Tasmanian devils back to the mainland. There’s some good evidence that they might compete with foxes and feral cats. Sheep farmers worry about it, but if you talk to Tasmanian sheep farmers, they’ll tell you that they have very few problems [with devils]. But they will give the foxes and rabbits a run for their money I think.’

There’s also a slightly larger predator that Tim thinks could help restore Northern Australia – Komodo dragons. ‘They were in Australia for a long time, they’re in the fossil record here and in Timor. They just happened to have only survived on an offshore island, just like [Tasmanian] devils have only survived on an offshore island.’ Tim also thinks that, unlike our invasive predators, there would still be hard-wired responses by Australia’s marsupials to avoid Komodos because of Australia’s existing goannas.

‘For goats and pigs, though, it would be total annihilation. It could make a big difference. I’d bring back Komodos in a heartbeat.’

Some of Tim’s hopes are much closer on the horizon, though. ‘Eastern quolls would be so cool to have back on the mainland,’ he excitedly tells me. ‘I remember when I was curator of mammals at the [Australian] Museum, I had an old guy come in with evidence of them living in his basement, which was amazing given they had gone from the rest of the mainland by then.’ Perhaps serendipitously, eastern quolls are now slated for return to the wild on the Australian mainland within the next year or two.

Throughout our conversation, almost every time we venture into a broader discussion, Tim underlines his point with a personal experience that he carries with him. Whether it’s the little brown thornbills that visit his backyard in Bayside Melbourne or the giant school of kingfish he observed in Sydney Harbour as tourists bustled on by, for Tim it all comes back to place. ‘You read someone like Tim Winton as well, you can see that shine through. He grew up on the urban fringe and saw the urban expansion, and there’s a whole generation of activists that came out of things like that.’ So, when I ask him how we might create this connection to place and nature, his response, half serious, half in jest, cuts through like a knife.

‘If every citizenship ceremony [not just on Australia Day], people were given some eucalyptus or wattle, rather than being asked about Don Bradman’s batting average, I’m sure that would be a very effective start.’

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