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  Flying ant dayLinda Venn
 
  1. Rose-crowned fruit-dove, 2. Crimson rosella, 3. Figbird, 4. Spectacled flying-fox. (All artwork by Bill Cooper from ‘Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest’ by Wendy Cooper)  
 
  1. Rose-crowned fruit-dove, 2. Crimson rosella, 3. Figbird, 4. Spectacled flying-fox. (All artwork by Bill Cooper from ‘Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest’ by Wendy Cooper))  

Today is a ‘flying ant day’, the first real day of summer – and it’s still September. How do these insects know I have a line full of wet washing for them to cling to? The water skinks are in a frenzy, lapping up a feast of fallen termites. Later today the riflebirds will walk the guttering, noisily collecting those ants that slid down the hot tin roof on this warm and sunny day. There are so many lizards climbing the firewood heap that I keep checking for any sign of a red-bellied black snake. We’ve relocated two in the last three weeks from the firewood pile, the latter one small enough to be one of this year’s brood, so there may be more. Our callistemons are full of bottlebrushes dripping nectar. The flowers are being mobbed by native and commercial bees, butterflies and at least eight species of honeyeaters, some of which only visit from the wet sclerophyll forest for this annual flowering. The lawn beneath is a carpet of flowers nipped off and discarded by crimson rosellas.

Days like this confirm why I chose to live in Paluma, surrounded by tropical rainforest. The experts call it upper montane, simple notophyll vine forest. I know it relies heavily on additional ‘precipitation’ received from mist blanketing the mountains. However, I have noticed that the cloud sits atop the mountain range less frequently now, the wet seasons are hotter and drier, and the mean rainfall has dropped to just over 1500mm. Is this a sign of climate change?

Also noticeable is the decrease in biodiversity since I moved here some 27 years ago – the frogs are pretty well all gone. While most other animal groups are still here, their numbers have dropped markedly. To have our home assaulted by a white-tailed rat is now a novelty, not a seasonal occurrence. The insects are just not around each summer in the same numbers – I cannot remember how long it is since I saw an atlas moth. If someone sees a striped possum the story does the rounds of the village, getting all the attention owed to an exaggerated fishing tale. So I am happy to see the black snakes, while not really wanting them in my back yard – I have a Jack Russell that needs protecting from himself. Having the black snakes around means I still have healthy food chains happening in my garden, but I do worry about the state of the forest.

Australian brush turkey (Artwork by Bill Cooper from ‘Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest’ by Wendy Cooper)
Australian brush turkey (Artwork by Bill Cooper from ‘Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest’ by Wendy Cooper)

The birds are still here and we have helped host three visits from David Attenborough over the years. However, even the birds are under stress. A drop-off in the burning of the nearby wet schlerophyll forest has resulted in the encroachment of the rainforest since the area has been managed as a national park. Bird species from the ecotonal Eucalyptus grandis forest to the west once only visited in dry winters. However, in the late 1980s birds like the white-cheeked honeyeaters became breeding residents and are now out-competing the eastern spinebills and dusky honeyeaters.

So I celebrate the 20th anniversary of World Heritage here with mixed feelings. I fear for the next twenty years. I passionately supported the intent of the declaration then, and still do. On the other hand, the declaration destroyed the local forestry industry overnight and decimated the local population. Local timber cutters were not fairly compensated for their loss of livelihood. The one remaining school was closed. The district population is no longer economically sustainable. Most local roads through the forests, many based on the original tin-miners tracks, are now closed to public access. There are very few opportunities for the average visitor to actually appreciate the values of the World Heritage Area. There is little recognition of the cultural heritage of early European settlers within the Area. Walking trails dating back to the 1880s are being lost. Fire management is almost non-existent and the wet schlerophyll forest is disappearing fast, with some species forced to relocate. Scientific knowledge alone will not save the Area. The general taxpayer needs an emotional connection to the forests to support the diversion of their financial contribution to ensuring the survival of the Area. I don’t think a ‘lock it up’ management strategy enables people to make that connection.

Still, on a perfect day like this, it’s hard to maintain the rage. The skinks, now gorged of flying ants, are sitting lazily in the sun, so all’s well with the world..

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Linda Venn

Linda grew up mostly in Townsville. Trips to the mountains as a teenager were the beginning of a life-long interest in the Mt Spec area and its wildlife, vegetation and cultural heritage. Upon graduating as a teacher in 1973, Linda married her childhood sweetheart, Bill, and moved for five years to Longreach. They returned to Townsville in the late 1970s and bought the Ivy Cottage Tearooms in Paluma as a family business in 1981. They ran it for five years until the first of their two sons arrived. In 2000 Linda became the Principal at Paluma Environmental Education Centre. She was involved in ground-truthing the World Heritage boundaries around Paluma and has now completed two terms on WTMA’s Community Consultative Committee. Linda received a Cassowary Award in the Unsung Hero category in 2008.

Bill and Wendy Cooper

Bill and Wendy built their home on the Atherton Tableland in 1987 and have a passion for rainforest flora and fauna. Together they produced their comprehensive and unique ‘Fruits of the Australian Tropical Rainforest’. Wendy is a botanist who wrote the text and devised a system of keys to the tropical rainforest plants using their fruits as the primary means of identification. Bill provided hundreds of detailed illustrations of plants and animals. He was the first Australian to win a prestigious award from the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia for his ‘artistic contribution to mankind’s better appreciation of living things’. Both Wendy and Bill have received Cassowary Awards to honour their work in the Wet Tropics.

 
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