Walking through Secret Creek Sanctuary in Lithgow is like entering a time before colonisation – where else do we walk right alongside pademelons, wallabies and potoroos? Before entering the sanctuary, I had never even heard the words ‘pademelon’ and ‘potoroo’.
Well, when Charles Darwin visited Lithgow in 1836 there was probably a potoroo under every bush!
Trevor Evans, the founder of the not-for-profit Australian Ecosystems Foundation, which runs Secret Creek, would love this to be the case again, although his biggest passion is helping to prevent the extinction of the endangered Eastern Quoll – the rarest quoll in Australia. The first step to achieving this is through education, so that people like me may learn what a potoroo or a quoll actually is, and then learn to care, and start to reconnect with native species. Once a month Lithgow High School visits the sanctuary, and local volunteer groups come to walk the dingoes! Evans also hosts International Student Volunteers and exchange students in a fully self-sufficient cabin – most recently a Zoology student from Cambridge.
From the hand-built verandah of the cabin, Evans points out the ruins of the one-room house where the Pow family used to live. His grandmother once lived nearby too – before it became a mine. Twenty years ago, after being one of the 300 coal miners laid off from Clarence Mine, he was persuaded by his grandmother to buy this land back and restore it. He now lives here with his children and grandchildren, and his daughter runs a vegan cafe here.
Evans has a background in science and ecotourism, and has built wildlife sanctuaries for Dr John Wamsley, the conservationalist known for protesting the laws that protected feral cats which were killing native animals. At a tourism award ceremony in South Australia, he wore the pelt of a feral cat on his head, leading to controversy, and ultimately resulting in a change in the law!
Many of the native animals that Evans protects can’t survive in the wild as it exists today, because they can never coexist with introduced species. He explained how feral cats and foxes are eating our lizards, geckos, frogs and small mammals. Foxes give mange to wombats, and cats spread a brain parasite to quolls called toxoplasmosis, which is as dangerous as it sounds! These creatures are unable to thrive outside of the fenced area that Secret Creek provides. Even breeding within the sanctuary comes with its challenges, because the tiny insectivorous Eastern Quoll only breeds for the first two of its three-year life span. If one year of breeding is missed, then the whole quoll population could be lost. The only wild quolls you will still find in the Blue Mountains are the kind that probably keep chicken owners up at night – the larger, aggressively carnivorous Spotted Tail Quoll, also known as the Tiger Quoll. The Eastern Quolls under Evans’ care are the prey.
So how can we ‘rewild’ Australia? “Every British tourist needs to take one fox back to England with them,” is Evans’ suggestion! A fair trade. He says: “We need to take responsibility for what we’ve done to them [the native species]. It’s our fault for bringing in foxes and clearing so much land.” On a small scale, Evans stresses the importance of keeping your cats locked inside, and in the bigger picture we need to be considering the attitudes of the politicians we elect in relation to protecting our ecosystems. It doesn’t take long at Secret Creek to see how varied Evans’ work at the sanctuary is, and the different measures that he takes in order to allow the native animals to thrive. Installing floppy fences around the Sanctuary has made it impossible for cats to enter the 10 hectares that the sanctuary covers, and he recently returned from a trip to Tasmania in search of new genetics for the quolls. The genetics need to be rotated in order to keep the endangered species healthy, so different sanctuaries across Australia all contribute. Trevor also puts a lot of work into creating habitat. With volunteers he’s planted around 400,000 trees!
All of this work and more led to Trevor Evans being titled Australian Geographic’s Conservationist of the Year in 2010.
So where does the Sanctuary’s name come from? As it turns out it has nothing to do with the tucked-away location of Secret Creek. It’s a ‘secret’ because mining had caused the creek bed to crack and the water keeps disappearing.
And how is it that quolls became the focus of Evans’ working life? It all started when, as a child, he found a quoll caught in a rabbit trap and then nursed it back to health. “I want to keep them safe for the future,” he says.
If you similarly feel compelled to reconnect with native wildlife, then you can sponsor one of Trevor’s animals from $10 per month, or you can join the team of volunteers who keep this special time capsule alive. Come and help Trevor build a new koala enclosure to the soundscape of howling dingoes! (Just don’t get in the way of the two emus, Dumb and Dumber!)
To find out more, visit www.secretcreeksanctuary.com.au