Others can speak to the ecological significance of restoring Lungtalanana’s unspoiled glory. Kulai Sculthorpe just knows it’s where he belongs and what he needs to do.
“This is where my ancestors are from,” he says. “I’m back here on the same Country as they walked thousands of years ago.”
Drawing upon Indigenous knowledge passed down over generations, conservationists have embarked on an ambitious pilot project to rewild the 8230-hectare island off Tasmania’s northeast coast.
The genetically unique Bass Strait Island wombat will most likely be the first of at least six native species returned to the ruggedly beautiful member of the Furneaux Group.
European land clearing, bushfires and infestations of feral cats, rodents and rabbits gradually obliterated its once plentiful presence on Lungtalanana, along with that of the Bennett’s wallaby and the short-beaked echidna.
What makes the scheme unique, however, is that it will also involve cultural burning, a practice managed by Aboriginal people on the island for more than 40,000 years, in a bid to rebalance the animals’ damaged habitat.
For Sculthorpe, one of five young Pakana rangers selected to take part in the initiative, his participation is everything. Although, he’s not inclined to say so in so many words.
“It’s more of a feeling,” he offers when asked why the project is important. “It’s where I’m supposed to be in my opinion … this is where my people are from.
“It means so much to be here and to, you know, do the same practices and carry them out, that they were doing.”
Aboriginal people are thought to have lived on the island until about 4500 years ago, when rising seas forced them to retreat to the Tasmanian mainland.
Along with neighbouring Flinders, Cape Barren and about a hundred smaller islands, Lungtalanana is in fact a mountain remnant of the ancient land bridge which once connected what is now the island state and Victoria.
The rewilding project is being led by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre (TAC) and World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia in collaboration with The University of Tasmania.
First of many?
If successful, it’s hoped it will be repeated on other Bass Strait islands and eventually taken to the Australian mainland.
Kulai’s dad and TAC Spokesman Andry Sculthorpe says Lungtalanana, which was named Clarke Island in the late 1700s but reverted again when returned to its traditional owners in 2005, may look spectacular at a glance but Indigenous visitors sense the land isn’t healthy.
“Country is holistic,” he says. “It’s the living things, non-living things, spiritual beliefs and the way all those things intertwine. Returning animals that belong here will help Lungtalanana to heal.”
Ecologically speaking, the Bass Strait Island wombat, which is the smallest of three geographically separated subspecies, is a crucial engineer, says WWF head of Healthy Land and Seascapes Darren Grover.
“They dig and they scratch … which means that water and nutrients can get deep down into the soils. They’re also spreading seed and they’re spreading fungal spores, which are really important.”
The wombat’s burrows are also known to provide safe havens for other animals, especially during bushfires.
At the same time, though, it’s expected cultural burning will reduce fuel loads and in turn, the frequency and impact of bushfires like the one which blackened 80 per cent of Lungtalanana in 2014.
As a consequence of the devastating blaze, the island has undergone severely imbalanced regrowth featuring a proliferation of woody species.
“Cultural burning will recreate a diversity of vegetation communities and ages, providing habitat and food for the animals we return and reducing the severity of any future wildfires,” Andry Sculthorpe says.
“A lot of the Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) have died out,” says Brendan Lowery, another of the Pakana rangers preparing to join the effort.
Black Summer’s legacy of destruction
“We hope to collect and germinate seeds of various plant species and recreate biodiversity.
“Our tussock grasses have evolved to benefit from fire. Cultural burning will put nitrogen back into the soil, improve the grasslands and provide food for returned animals.”
WWF is launching the $1.5 million project with a $339,000 contribution as part of its multi-year Regenerate Australia initiative, which aims to eventually repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the Black Summer fires and help future-proof Australia against climate change.
Meanwhile, its focus is on reinstating the natural balance which underpins Lungtalanana’s wild beauty.
“It’s supposed to always be there and it’s not here at the moment,” Kulai Sculthorpe says.
“Hopefully in the future we can see it brought back.”