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Paradise lost?

Life on land

“No shelter and no safety, urban development along the coastline adjoining Cairns has left little room for Australian wildlife that has to navigate roads, fences and the buildings that make life so difficult for the Australian species that remain”.

Peter and Andrea Hylands

December 23, 2023
“As frequent visitors to Cairns and Cape York, over what is now almost half a century, we regard, like David Attenborough, this region as one of the most beautiful places on Earth”.

Queensland has also been one of the most destructive places we know of when it comes to care of the environment. What has already been lost is a tragedy at vast scale. Even the Great Barrier Reef continues to be impacted by these ‘relaxed’ attitudes to the natural world.

Cyclone Jasper, wildlife and flooding in North Queensland

If things were not bad enough, along comes Cyclone Jasper (December 2023).

“Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology recorded more than 2 metres of rain in the Mossman Gorge region, and 1.9 metres of rainfall at the Kuranda Railway Station. Some places receiving the heaviest rainfall in Australia since 1958. Heavy rains and their long duration, over days causing the unexpected levels of flooding”.

“Animals in Far North Queensland face the grimmest Christmas ever. The floods in Far North Queensland have been severely understated, while the cyclone was downgraded and did little damage itself, the aftermath that delivered up to 1.7 metres of rain in only a few hours, have absolutely devastated the land and everything that once thrived on it. Mobs of Kangaroos and Wallabies literally washing up on beaches and streets. Birds possums and gliders with no homes to return, joeys of all species, wet, cold and orphaned". Shai Ager
"This is the actually gut wrenching picture for our wildlife rescuers, in particular our team at the Agile Project Wildlife Rescue, of what rescuers have experienced day in day out for the last five days.  The groups hotline has received a record breaking 254 calls since the cyclone, that is 254 animals that are in care. 87 joeys were rescued and being looked after by only 22 carers, that is not including the birds, reptiles, bats and other wildlife being called in, day in day out. Carers homes are full of the animals that have survived which have a long journey ahead if they are to survive. The coming weeks will be touch and go, there are many complications because of the flood water, such as aspiration and pneumonia, myopathy worms and parasites, coccidiosis, tetanus and god knows what other diseases that the water carried and left. We need to treat those that have a chance of survival now”. Shai Ager

Talking to Shai Ager from The Agile Project during the flooding, Shai describes how this catastrophe for wildlife in Far North Queensland unfolded, the Cyclone hit on 13 December 2023, and things looked as if they were going to be okay as the winds from the cyclone passed us without doing too much damage. That led to everyone being unprepared for what happened next which no one had predicted.

We did not realise that the flooding would occur and the terrible impact it has had on the Wallabies and birds in particular. I had previously worked in the floods in Lismore, then I was doing drop offs and supplies, but this time we were right in the middle of it. In the beginning the main calls we were getting were for baby birds as they got blown out of their nests. We were run off our feet with baby birds and a limited number of carers who take on this work, often the baby birds do not survive the trauma.

After days the rain did not stop. I remember waking up at 7am and at 9am we received a text message of a major flooding alert, by midday, half of Cairns was under water. Even on the Tablelands, Mareeba, which we did not think could flood, well it happened. We were stuck because of the flooding, as the floods receded, the worst day was 18 December, we received 104 calls for wildlife rescues.

I would miss two or three calls when I was on a phone call to another member of the public, and the calls were all to do with Wallabies. They had been in the rain for so long, consistent rain that never stopped and in Cairns the wildlife did not have enough places to take cover during and after the cyclone and flooding because of destruction of habitat by development. The animals had nowhere to go. Wildlife sat it out on people’s driveways if they were not underwater. We found Wallabies in really weird places.

Because the Wallabies had spent so long in the rain, we had an enormous volume of calls reporting sick Wallabies that were lethargic, laying on their sides and unable to move. Most commonly hypothermia was the cause of the suffering. We euthanised 83 Wallabies on 18 December as they could not be saved. I was cut off in Mareeba because the roads were blocked but was able to do the phones co-ordination of the rescues. We would normally have about 20 to 50 Wallaby joeys in care at one time, we have 87 joeys in care excluding all the ones that have died. It was a waiting game to see if they would recover from hyperthermia. Those animals just want to live, they try so hard. We were having to make some really tough calls.

In terms of populations, there were about 450 left on the beaches, but this is the worth death toll and because this population is now in ‘suburbia’ there was no cover for them to hide. So the number that died will be very high. The only remaining habitat in the area was a section in Moores Gully which was flooded. So these animals sat in the open and rain for five days straight. Infections and worms are commonplace. In Mareeba, where there is still cover from native vegetation, the Wallabies have survived, they are fine, even the compromised ones have recovered. The story is not the same for our Eastern Grey Kangaroos, we have not been able to save any of them because of coccidiosis caused by the flooding.

We are seeing species that we would not normally be working with in such numbers. We should not forget the destruction of rivers, river banks and associated vegetation, devastating for the biodiversity that call these habitats home.

Urban development, particularly housing estates, close to sea level, along the coastline adjoining Cairns has left little room, nor shelter, for the Australian animals that now navigate the roads, fences and urban development that make life so difficult for a range of Australian species.

The Agile Project needs your help more than ever at this time, given the scale of the rescue effort. So donate what you can on the Agile Project's website. Disasters, when they occur over the Christmas period, make the work even harder. Australia's Commonwealth Government is active in Far North Queensland assisting with funding of the recovery, We have suggested they might want to turn at least some of their attention to wildlife and the small band of individuals who will continue to work so hard to make sure as many of the impacted animals survive. We thank all the wildlife rescuers and carers in Far North Queensland for their amazing hard work and resilience.


“We have inherited an incredibly beautiful and complex garden, but the trouble is that we are appallingly bad gardeners. We have not been bothered to acquaint ourselves with the simplest principles of gardening. By neglecting our garden, we are storing up for ourselves, in the not very distant future, a world catastrophe as bad as an atomic war and we are doing it with the bland complacency of an idiot child chopping up a Rembrandt with a pair of scissors.” Gerald Durrell, 1965

We are going to take you back a few years and to an earlier story with Shai, that gives some historical context and particularly for the Agile Wallaby, best described as a gorgeous animal. This makes what is happening now, even harder to bear.

The Agile Wallaby is both diminutive and adorable. Wallabies and Kangaroos across Australia are constantly in danger including from shooting, land clearing and development activities. The cause is too often poor planning that takes little interest in the environment or wildlife.

"When dealing with a species people always delude themselves as to numbers, oh there are plenty of those, is the usual phrase" Gerald Durrell, 1965

Queensland habitats of the Agile Wallaby (the Queensland subspecies is Macropus agilis jardinii) include open forest country with rivers or streams and nearby grasslands. These are gregarious animals that live in groups or mobs of 10 or so individuals. Agile Wallabies gather in larger groups in favoured feeding areas.

The Creative cowboy crew work extensively in the north of Australia and Far North Queensland is no exception.

The changes here are significant with housing and other developments consuming the coastal vegetation and habitats on the coastal strip to the north of Cairns. It is adjacent to the Captain Cook Highway and it is here, on what was once an area of grassland in a suburb known as Trinity Beach, that a significant number of Agile Wallabies were trapped among the urban development. This last remaining refuge was being developed. The ever increasing endangerment of these beautiful animals has been an obvious feature of the drive along the Captain Cook Highway for many years, but nothing has been done by those responsible for urban planning and development to assist the animals by relocating them to a safer and more sustainable habitat.

As the bulldozers moved in, the Agile Wallabies scattered in panic, some are killed on the adjacent road. As the grass is removed and access to water is restricted by development activity, the Agile Wallabies starve and as Macropod species are particularly vulnerable to stress, stress induced cardiomyopathy is yet another cause of death.

What is occurring to Agile Wallabies and other species along this coastal strip of Queensland is a common feature across all states and territories in Australia. Agile Wallabies have been particularly vulnerable to development in Darwin as that city expands, their destruction with the same disregard for nature. The sub species of Agile Wallaby in the top end of the Northern Territory is Macropus agilis agilis.

They are better off dead

Australia has a kill cull culture while pretending its diverse and extraordinary species are protected.

The standard excuses used by governments, from both politicians and their public servants, are as follows:

Kangaroos and Wallabies cannot be relocated: Wrong, it is absolutely possible to relocate these animals using modern drugs and darting techniques. Skills and knowledge about these techniques are in short supply and the animal rescue organisations that carry out this work with no support from governments face great difficulties (obstacles and threats and abuse) for wanting to help wildlife in danger and distress.

The animals are dangerous: This claim is always accompanied by newspaper articles and other media about individuals being attacked. Wrong, the animals are not dangerous. In the case of the Agile Wallaby, their size means that they are particularly harmless. Animals will respond if they are cornered or are being abused.

There is a population explosion of this species so they should be culled: Wrong, While the Agile Wallaby is still relatively common in its northern range, a northern extinction in Australia is underway and animal populations are in rapid decline because of a range of imposed environmental disasters, including land clearing.

The animals are diseased and should be culled: Wrong, this is a standard excuse peddled by Australian Governments and industry who want to exploit wildlife or remove it because of development, to soften up the public so the wildlife can be destroyed without too much fuss.

Neither climate change, not yet proven, or land clearing are a particular concern when it comes to caring for biodiversity: Wrong, both land clearing and climate change are fundamental (and of course conjoined) in creating rapid species decline.

The end result of poor planning and the cynically contrived set of propaganda listed above is that the animals at risk are killed, either through the too often secretive attempts to shoot or poison them or by the development or land clearing process itself, and as the bulldozers move in. As an indicator by the late 1900s, Queensland, because of land clearing and development activities at that time was killing around 100 million native mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles each year. This number is now lower as there are fewer animals to kill. The immense cruelty involved in these killings goes almost without comment.

So now we go to another situation that repeats itself over and over again around Australia and this is a long-term issue. Here I go back to 1965 and Gerald Durrell’s rather depressing account of his visit to Australia, from his book Two in the bush.

“The picture of conservation that I found in New Zealand, Australia and Malaya was distressingly familiar. Small bands of dedicated people, underpaid and overworked are fighting the battle against public apathy and political and big business chicanery.”

It would be easy to say things have not changed but the reality today in Australia is that the wilful destruction of wildlife is far more venomous today than it has ever been and the dedicated people fighting this destruction are too often unpaid with no support from governments, even of the moral kind.

The beginning of the Cairn’s rescues

At the time of writing the earlier story in 2019, Shai had this to say about the current situation:

“My attention has been brought to a somewhat devastating reality. Innocent creatures are dying amongst the current development in Blue Water Estate, Trinity Beach, Cairns. Developers are trying to advertise the land as ‘nature friendly’, despite the significant amount of native animal deaths in the area.
If you live in Cairns, you’re bound to know about the hundreds of Agile Wallabies that occupy the space in Trinity Beach. But where are these animals supposed to go now that the land is getting developed? The Council is yet to take any action, and the public is getting more furious each day. As a Bachelor of Science, Ecology major at the University of Queensland, I am shocked that nothing has been done about this issue. Photographic evidence has been taken on site to prove these animals are dying, and yet a response plan has not been produced from the council".

I voluntarily travelled from Brisbane to Cairns to assess the situation as asked by members from the Cairns Coastal Wallaby Protection Society. During this time I presented at the CCWPS’s meeting and gave insight into why the Agile’s are possibly dying. I proposed three theories:

  1. Limited food and water
  2. Stress induced cardiomyopathy from loud machinery and change of environment
  3. Trapped: The highway is on one side coastal waters and mangroves with crocodiles on the other.
"Since I gave this presentation, Channel 7 Local News, Win News and ABC FNQ Radio have contacted me in regard to the issue. Media segments have been released stating my opinion and research outcomes".

One might also imagine that the people who make an enormous effort to rescue wildlife might do so unhindered. You would be wrong, apart from the usual attempts from governments to block any attempts at rescue, a strange and unreasoned vindictiveness is all too often part of the process. In the case of the Trinity Beach Wallabies, one such example, was the death of 49 Agile Wallabies in August 2019, on which we reported in detail at that time. Here is an extract of the local ABC’s story:

“The carcasses of more Agile Wallabies have been found in mysterious circumstances on a Cairns sporting field, taking the total number found there in the past week to more than 30. Shai Ager from The Agile Project said the animals had no visible injuries and may have been poisoned, with at least one seen foaming at the mouth”. ABC FNQ, August 2019

This kind of cruel behaviour also does harm to the people trying to rescue the animals as it is so distressing, not to mention depressing.

The final success

Mental toughness, the ability to deal with bureaucracy, media skills and the deep knowledge of native animals and their behaviours were the critical ingredients that turned the tide (late October 2021):

“The day has finally arrived and our team have accomplished an exceptional task that some said wasn’t even possible. What we want to get out there, is that THIS WORKS! This process changes the game on how Australia can manage human-wildlife conflicts. Every relocation morning, we steadily improved to create the most efficient, safe and humane procedure possible… that resulted in hundreds of happy, healthy Wallabies living their best lives! A relocation also reduces the pressure on the remaining population too. This means, less Wallabies venturing out onto sides of roads and suburban front yards. The work isn’t over yet. We’ll be taking a two week break before starting up again, to relocate another 200 which has already been approved by State Government. We intend to use this time, to keep pushing forward on a way to secure much-needed funding to complete this next relocation. Why is another relocation needed? Because even more Wallabies have been “pushed” into the area from surrounding development”. Agile Project, October 2021