On my first visit to Western Australia in the 1980s, I was struck by the beauty of its strange landscape, and the novelty of everything in it.
But I soon learned that it faces a problem – so much of its rarity is cryptic, meaning it’s hard to see or grasp. Take the tiny honey possum that inches its way across a yellow banksia flower, flicking its long tongue into the blossom’s heart.
Smaller than a mouse, this little marsupial lives nowhere else but in the southwest
corner of Australia. But how many of us have seen it? And how few of our children know that the gorgeous banksias the honey possum needs to survive heavily favour this part of the world? Most banksia species in Australia – which number around 170 – are found in the southwest.
My amateur fascination with southwest nature began when my partner, a fourth generation Sandgroper, drove me ‘down to the southwest’ on a brief holiday. As he knew would happen, I was transfixed by honey-hued karri forest, blue-black waters in leafy inlets, and riotous spring colour in prickly coastal heath.
I gradually came to learn that the southwest encompasses a far greater area than most people imagine – it’s not simply Margaret River, or the eucalypt forests or the ‘kwongan’ heath that shrouds coastal and inland sandplains.
In fact, the southwest is a much larger triangle of half a million square kilometres that lies below a line stretching from the coast north of Kalbarri, across the top of Kalgoorlie and on down to Esperance on the south coast.
On the Swan Coastal Plain lies Perth, the only capital city in the world swathed in banksia woodland. To the south and east are expanses of jarrah forest and, in the wetter deep southwest, the ancient tingle trees. Along a wild southern coastline is heathland where cryptic creatures – even rare mammals like the Gilbert’s Potoroo, once thought to have become extinct – have hung on in sheltered thickets.
Moving inland, the Wheatbelt features giant granite outcrops where orchids grow in pockets of soil on top; the drier inland Mallee region has stands of rare eucalypts decorated by dazzling jewel beetles, and pearly strings of salt lakes. Rising from gently undulating country are two peaks with internationally renowned plant diversity – the Stirling and Porongurup ranges.
Around Kalgoorlie, the Great Western Woodlands extend further – and are in better shape – than any temperate inland forest on the planet.
Roaming the state as part of my day job as a journalist, I have met international botanists who express astonishment that we have more than 10,000 known plant species. In the entire United Kingdom, there are only around 1500 species, only one plant type for every five or six in the southwest. And new species are being discovered here at a rate faster than most tropical paradises.
The honey possum is one of our state’s wildlife treasures, as is the numbat, opposite (photography Jiri Lochman).
This information led me to another discovery. I learned that the place where I had opted to move, marry and raise my children is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. But how come?
In 2000, the region was designated a ‘global biodiversity hotspot’ by Professor Norman Myers and the US-based body Conservation International. The designation means that Western Australia’s southwest is one of only 35 selected places on Earth that qualify as “biologically rich and deeply threatened”. It is the only global hotspot identified in Australia.
In 2003, the Australian government decided to create its own list of biodiverse places. Yet again, out of fifteen ‘national hotspots’ selected across the continent, five lie in the southwest – at the Fitzgerald River and Ravensthorpe; Busselton and Augusta; Central and Eastern Avon Wheatbelt; the Mount Lesueur-Eneabba region; and the ‘kwongan’ sandplains from Geraldton to Shark Bay.
When I set out to write The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot, I was helped by a couple who, like me, came to Western Australia with fresh and untutored eyes. Czech-born Jiri and Marie Lochman arrived in Perth in the early 1980s, and almost immediately dedicated their careers to photographing WA’s nature. Their brilliant photographs of white-spotted chuditch and handsome numbats, of pink everlasting daisies and fog-shrouded forests help illustrate the beauty of southwest biodiversity.
The release of this book is timely. Only recently, the Environmental Protection Authority released a detailed warning that said our state “wears the scars of 186 years of European settlement”. Twelve mammals are gone, many plant species are reduced to tiny pockets and are verging on extinction. The EPA reports two-thirds of the original bush that once covered the Swan Coastal Plain has been destroyed, from Perth to the Peel region.
Our politicians wrestle daily with the enormous conflict between conserving nature and ushering Perth towards a bigger future as Australia’s third-largest city, overtaking Brisbane.
Every day we are losing ancient habitat, particularly the unique banksia woodland that surrounds metropolitan Perth. Anywhere you drive or walk, you will see bulldozers clearing bush for roads, airport access, housing and shopping centres.
I still feel optimistic that bushwalkers, conservationists, botanists, teachers, schoolchildren and local councillors can come together to create a united voice that our parliamentarians will hear.
We need the southwest environment and everything that lives in it. But now more than ever, it needs us to protect it.
The Southwest: Australia’s Biodiversity Hotspot, by Victoria Laurie, UWA Publishing, $45.