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Helen Crisp - Ecologist, Arid Recovery

Helen Crisp
'We captured 20 bilbies from inside the reserve and then released them outside the fence into the wild in the hope of establishing a wild population in the Roxby Downs region.'

Helen is the resident ecologist working with Arid Recovery, an ecosystem restoration initiative that is working to restore Australia’s arid lands. As the Easter bunny starts making an appearance on supermarket shelves, many have questioned its suitability to Australia. Feral rabbits are a major environmental problem and thus the native bilby has been put forward as our alternative Easter symbol. Most manufacturers donate some of the proceeds of their chocolate bilbies towards bringing the charismatic marsupial back from the brink of extinction.

What does being an ecologist involve?

I am mainly involved with the native side of things. I do a lot of native monitoring, which includes trapping for all different sorts of native animals around the reserve. I also do flora monitoring and assist the research coordinator in writing up journal articles. We also prepare internal reports, and design and carry out new projects with the mammals.

What’s the overall aim of Arid Recovery?

To facilitate the restoration of arid zone ecosystems through on-ground works, applied research, and industry, community and government partnerships. At the moment, the reserve is 82 square kilometres and ferals have been excluded from about 60 square kilometres of that. Within this area, native vegetation and animals have made a comeback and four locally extinct mammals have been successfully reintroduced. We are working to restore the arid zone ecosystem to the way it was prior to European settlement. The project started in 1997 by building up a fence, removing all the feral animals within that enclosure and using it to breed native species which have become locally extinct.

What work do you do with bilbies?

A lot of different aspects of Arid Recovery involves working with bilbies, but the program that I’ve been most involved with is the outside bilby release. We captured 20 bilbies from inside the reserve and then released them outside the fence into the wild in the hope of establishing a wild population in the Roxby Downs region. This release was particularly exciting as half the bilbies released were trained to avoid cats – their main predator in the wild and a large reason why their numbers are declining. This release will be a true success when we have young bilbies surviving out there and starting the next generation. Bilbies used to be found throughout Arid Australia, but now there are only small pockets of them still hanging on. Ideally we would like to see them repopulate their former range.

Is there anything the public can do to assist bilby conservation?

Buy Easter bilbies and support organisations that are involved with bilby conservation. The best thing the public can do is to read about what bilbies are and why they are important. With awareness comes passion, and with passion comes results.

How did you end up working in ecology?

I grew up on a farm in East Gippsland in far East Victoria. I always had a love for the outdoors and animals – native animals especially. I studied science – ecology, biology and botany – at university and went on to work as an annual trapping volunteer at Arid Recovery. I loved it and moved into a job as a research assistant before moving into the ecologist position.

What's the best thing about working as an ecologist?

Each day is different. There is no monotony and you are learning something new every day. You get to work outdoors with great people that have a wealth of knowledge in different areas and ultimately it is just exciting.

What are the other job opportunities for someone who has studied ecology?

There are a range of jobs available in the ecology field – from environmental consulting, zoo and park ranger jobs to technical field-based jobs. A lot of these jobs aren’t advertised though – it’s very much through word of mouth and contacts you develop through doing a heap of different volunteer work.

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