Jarrah Dale slumped down onto the bare ground, too sad to carry on further. They had been climbing Genoa Peak every Monday, often more frequently, and this was probably their 250th time up the previously scenic spot. Today, Jarrah couldn’t take it.
But their team pushed on to the peak, and as a heart-sore Jarrah stared out into the still blackened landscape they heard their name called excitedly. The volunteers had spotted some butterflies. No one had seen butterflies on Genoa Peak since the fires.
Joining them to investigate, Jarrah pulled out their camera and then realised… No way? It couldn’t be… There was 15 adult endangered Large Ant-blue butterflies flying, mating and fighting right in front of them. The group spent hours enjoying the rare display. It was the first record of ant-blues on the Peak since 2003, and likely the longest time interacting with them since the 90s. It was an uplifting experience for Jarrah, as it proved that ant-blues were alive still in East Gippsland and that they could survive an intense bushfire, thanks to their ecologically complex relationship with the area's coconut ants.
“[On hearing the news] I felt sad and it is hard, but you have to keep fighting for it”
Jarrah says that the find was “the absolute best” and demonstrated the “power of amazing volunteers”.
Unfortunately, as they later shared the incredible discovery with the Mallacoota community, Jarrah learnt that the slopes below Genoa Peak, where more coconut ants reside, are due to be logged later in the year. These unique ant colonies will be destroyed.
“[On hearing the news] I felt sad and it is hard, but you have to keep fighting for it.
“You’re never alone in these fights, and there’s no one individual you’re really against. It’s just a fucked-up system.
“There’s always an answer though. Someone will listen eventually. I’m inspired by the Mallacoota community and how much they care.”
As a member of the Threatened Species Conservancy (TSP), Jarrah is consistently dealing with species on the brink.
Founded five years ago by experienced fauna ecologist Abi Smith, TSP is an “independent not-for-profit organisation with a mission to work with communities, scientists and government to save Australia’s plants and animals from extinction.”
It was TSP’s groundbreaking project concept, largely centred on community involvement and citizen science principles, that landed them the post-bushfire Landcare funding to undertake this threatened butterfly census.
It’s an approach Jarrah loves, even though they admit that initially they were a little nervous that money was going to studying butterflies and not rebuilding homes. Jarrah adds, “It’d feel completely disingenuous if we didn’t have the community involved in these studies. Mallacoota is the friendliest place I’ve ever lived. People are very giving.”
Jarrah highlights the work of Don Ashby, who features in the recent ABC TV documentary series People's Republic of Mallacoota as someone who lost their home in the bushfires but has been assisting Jarrah in the running of conservation events and spending weeks painting murals in town.
“He’s not bitter. Just a beautiful, wholesome person.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Jarrah has some experience with sleepy towns by the water, having grown up in Hobart before its recent growth and development.
Jarrah feels extremely privileged to have grandparents who were passionate ecologists. After arriving in Australia from the United Kingdom, their grandfather gained a role in the CSIRO, and their grandmother undertook a PhD on mosquitoes before joining the staff at Griffith University.
Upon finishing their high schooling in Queensland, Jarrah began their studies at Griffith University. Gaining a Bachelor of Science in Ecology and Conservation with Honours and a University Medal – a childhood spent exploring in the bush was really paying dividends.
A passion for red pandas led Jarrah to Nepal, where they founded the Red Panda Trust, a conservation venture designed to empower conservation through research.
Jarrah then worked on a range of projects as an ecologist for the Zoological Society of London in Mongolia, including training wildlife detector dogs as a tool against the illegal wildlife trade, introducing wolves back onto the steppe and monitoring water points used by the Gobi Bear, the world’s rarest bear (only estimated to be 30 left), and snow leopards.
Currently, Jarrah is undertaking a PhD at the University of Oxford using complex ecological modelling to understand the coevolution of the Tasmanian Devil and the facial tumour disease that has been decimating devil populations.
Beginning to feel that “all my life was consumed by devils!”, Jarrah and their two temporarily retired conservation dogs, Casey and Charlie, moved to Mallacoota for TSP’s butterfly project.
Going forwards, Jarrah would love to see annual surveys of butterfly and moth populations in more of East Gippsland and up into the South Coast to provide data on how their numbers are affected by such large-scale, intense bushfires. While that information could guide a long-term conservation plan, Jarrah believes that a more immediate captive breeding program should be established to boost populations in the short term, especially as similar programs have had success overseas and Melbourne Zoo has the capability to undertake such a project.
As Abi highlights, for many ecosystems butterflies are a ‘keystone’ species, so if they disappear, whole ecosystems can collapse, which can have devastating effects on all of us.
Jarrah is a proud trans and queer scientist who grew up during a time when it was illegal to be homosexual in Tasmania; a fact that they say was very damaging to them and why they now feel it’s important to show that “it’s not just straight people that are doing science.”
For many trans and queer people, even the wide, wild spaces of the bush aren’t completely safe, as they can be misgendered or emotionally or physically hurt. Jarrah wants to empower others to learn about nature and create culturally safe landscapes, as we need everyone to feel connected to Australia’s flora and fauna if we’re going to have a chance to protect it.
Adding, “If when I was a kid, I saw someone like me, I probably would not have hated myself so much. Just to be visible now, maybe that helps kids in a similar situation [like I faced].”
Abi adds that STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related careers need more diversity, and current evidence demonstrates that high dropout rates occur in Year 9 for female students. Recent research also shows that increased employee diversity correlates with increased revenue.
The 2019/20 bushfires were devastating for the East Gippsland region, but compassion, community and openness have been creating opportunities for healing in the region.
As the landscape mends, we hope that it will encourage old friends, like the large and small ant-blue butterflies, to return, as well as new friends, adding to the beauty and diversity of the area in brand new ways.