Written by Tracy Rout, Conservation Analyst, WWF-Australia
Mount Barney National Park is a large area of undisturbed natural vegetation around 120km southwest of Brisbane. The mountain itself is a rugged rocky peak that was the product of a volcanic eruption 24 million years ago and now makes for a popular but perilous summit hike. The national park contains an amazing range of landscapes – from moist subtropical rainforest with pooling creeks to dryer mallee eucalypt shrublands to the steep bare rocky slopes that are the preferred habitat of brush-tailed rock wallabies. The park is home to more than 1,000 plant and animal species, including 69 rare or threatened plants and animals. Most of the park is part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, which encompasses 41 reserves across southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales.
Around half of Mount Barney National Park burnt in a massive bushfire in late 2019, during the devastating 2019-20 bushfire season, including areas of World Heritage rainforest that are usually too moist to burn and are not adapted to bushfires. The sheer scale of the fire meant there was likely to be little refuge for some species of wildlife. This is why Mount Barney National Park is one of the sites in our Eyes on Recovery southeast Queensland project, which we run with our partners at The University of Queensland and the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.
The aim of Eyes on Recovery, with the support of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, is to harness new technologies, including sensor cameras and artificial intelligence, to find out how Australia’s fauna is recovering in the aftermath of the 2019-20 fires. There are 14 project sites, with a network of more than 1,000 eyes (cameras) deployed across eastern Australia in partnership with state governments, local governments, universities, and other NGOs.
Late in March 2022, following the floods in Queensland and New South Wales, we went to retrieve the memory cards full of images that will feed into Google’s AI platform, Wildlife Insights. The images captured by the cameras will help us better understand the recovery and resilience of koalas, lyrebirds, quolls and many more species in Mount Barney National Park.
I edged my car slowly along the dirt road, avoiding the gaping potholes where the gravel and dirt had been washed away. My aging hybrid car was not the best vehicle for this terrain, its low body designed for fuel efficiency rather than off-road adventures. I glanced at the grey clouds overhead. More rain today, on top of what we had received in southeast Queensland over the last few months, could make the road impassable on the way out. I would have to monitor the weather conditions closely.
Then I stopped. Ahead of me, where the road should be, was a fast-flowing creek. I immediately decided to forget it and pulled over to the verge. I settled in to wait for my fieldwork companions, Natalya and George. Hoping they would be driving an off-road vehicle that could get us safely across the creek and up the next kilometre of road to the Yellow Pinch car park at the base of Mount Barney.
After a short wait, Natalya and George arrived. Natalya Maitz is a PhD student at the University of Queensland who has been maintaining the cameras and tagging photos from this site.
Unfortunately, Natalya and George were not in the large, grunting four-wheel drive I had wished for. It seemed that all of us had underestimated the effects of the recent rain on the roads and walking tracks in the park. A storm in the area the night before, over already sodden ground, meant creeks were flowing unexpectedly high. We packed the cameras, GPS devices, secateurs, satellite phone and safety beacons into our backpacks alongside supplies of food, water, and protective clothing. Then we started our journey by stripping off our hiking boots and socks and wading across the creek. We didn’t know at the time that it would be the first of many creeks we would have to traverse that day.
The cameras at Mount Barney were placed in a mix of vegetation types. Some were placed in areas that were severely burnt in 2019-20, some in areas where just the understorey was burnt, and a few in areas that were not burnt. This study design will allow us to find out whether fire severity has affected fauna activity in different areas of the park. To reach the cameras we followed walking tracks taking us through distinct landscapes, all stunning in their own way.
To maximise detection of wildlife and minimise photos of curious bushwalkers, the cameras were placed in the bush some distance off the walking tracks. Sometimes we made our way to a camera through open forest; sometimes we weaved past bushes or battled through waist-high grass or an understorey of vines.
When we reached each camera, we checked whether it was still working and quickly scrolled through some of the photos on its tiny internal screen. Then we changed the SD memory card, changed the batteries, and trimmed the surrounding vegetation to ensure the motion-sensitive camera wouldn’t be triggered repeatedly by a piece of grass nearby blowing in the wind. A few cameras were waterlogged by the recent rain and needed replacing. One placed close to the edge of a creek had been washed away completely, presumably when water levels rose during the recent flooding events in southeast Queensland.
We saw plenty of evidence remaining from the fire that went through Mount Barney National Park more than two years before. In some places, most trees in the forest had scorched trunks, while huge blackened trunks still lay where they were felled by fire. The recent rains have had their impact too, in the form of soil erosion and landslides on the walking tracks. Yet it is easy to see how the vegetation is recovering and regenerating. The native wildlife are not so easy to see, which makes our camera projects so necessary. Our cameras and the data they collect will give us a window into the hidden lives of the forest fauna, and how they are faring after the fire and the more-recent flood. This important fact makes all the difficulties of our off-track fieldwork worthwhile.