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The trials, tribulations and rewards of being a wildlife guide.

misc/misc_2009/Seal_Bay_-_KI_SATC A few wild observations - By Craig Wickham - of Exceptional Kangaroo Island

As a wildlife guide I find myself dealing with travellers with increasingly high expectations in terms of wildlife encounters. These expectations are created by a myriad of sources: extraordinary "National Georgraphic" style magazine images; wildlife documentaries shot in high definition using technology which is improving exponentially; or movies made with "animatronics" - those furry robots which some viewers cannot distinguish from the real thing. I recall years ago coming out of the cinema having watched "Babe" with my nephews and hearing some lovely old dear, having just seen white mice singing "Blue Moon" wondering aloud "which ones were the puppets!". Wildlife has also joined the ranks of the soap operas with "Meerkat Manor" becoming the "Coronation Street" of the Savannah and thereby somehow more accessible.

Also overlooked are the behind-the-scenes wildlife researchers who have been working in the field for 20+ years who through their knowledge and experience are able to put a film crew right at "spot X" to capture footage never seen before. Or the fruitless trips to some exotic wildlife habitat time after time when the elusive creature just doesn't show.

There is an upside to this of course - a lifetime of breathless enthusiasm from Sir David Attenborough right in front of X (replace X with the endangered species of your choice) or the over-exuberant Aussie passion from the late Steve Irwin for wrangling a Sumatran spotted whatever python has fuelled an unprecedented level of interest in the natural world. What does that mean for us in the field?

There are several aspects to managing travellers seeking wildlife encounters as part of a trip - or perhaps as the entire focus of their vacation. Firstly there is the question of sustainability - ironically (or perhaps not!) interest is at a high level when some of the animal populations approach their lowest ebb. Perhaps the scarcity factor plays a part here.

As a guide a core responsibility is leaving the animals on good terms - so the next time I encounter them they will not bolt on sight. Predictable benign behaviour (from us!) is a big part of this - no I am not going to dive on a tiger snake and wrestle it or chase the kangaroos so they jump! We should educate our guests how to behave so wildlife continues acting naturally without disturbance - which of course is what engaged visitors really want to see.

Craig and Janet Wickham and their enthusiastic
team have been sharing Kangaroo Island's
secrets with guests for many years. They have 
guided specialised wildlife tours since 1986 and
are deeply committed to sustainability and

A second aspect relates to photography. Being based on Kangaroo Island we have extraordinary opportunities to photograph Australian animals: kangaroos; wallabies; echidnas; sea-lions; fur-seals; goannas; snakes; koalas; possums; and a diverse range of birds. Again expectations are set by third parties: promotional images, postcards and magazine images of koalas creatively shot in captive situations or using scaffolding (seriously - I have seen it done) or using photographic equipment costing many thousands of dollars. Whilst digital cameras provide incredible improvements I still see people with a $200 camera wanting to get a National Geographic standard image of a wild animal perched right up a tree!

Nature, red in tooth and claw
The further aspect of the guiding role - one which I will expand on, is interpreting what Tennyson so aptly coined "nature, red in tooth and claw". Whilst not being exposed to this to the extent that my colleagues are in Africa, we still come across situations which challenge those who wish to see nature through a lens of "warm and fuzzy".

A regular summer encounter on our trips is heath goannas (a smaller lizard of the same genus as the massive Komodo dragon) feeding on roadkill. The sight of one of these slender creatures withdrawing its' blood-glazed head from the interior of a wallaby is confronting to some visitors, however graphically it illustrates the carrion-feeder role goannas have, and the equivalent scene is played out daily with many species globally.

Another interaction which had guests equally enthralled and aghast was observing a white-bellied sea-eagle stooping on a galah (a pigeon-sized pink and gray cockatoo) over high cliffs at Weirs Cove in Flinders Chase National Park. The galah flew out over the ocean in an effort to escape and was almost taken down at water level before evading at the last minute. We watched as it twisted and turned trying to gain elevation and finally flew back inland - passing close enough overhead that we could hear it panting.

It isn't all about wildlife; there are some amazing
places to explore as well. Credit Craig Wickham.

Seconds later the eagle flashed over in pursuit and they disappeared from view. We were about to leave our cliff-top post when the galah re-appeared with the sea-eagle following doggedly behind. They passed over again and as they went flew over the sea a second eagle, previously unseen, flew up from below, effectively tag-teaming the hapless galah which exploded in a cloud of pink and gray feathers. The sea-eagles flew over to a convenient roost and started plucking their meal. We left and the mood in the vehicle was somewhat sombre for a while before discussions started. People were somewhat torn between feeling sad for the galah but pleased for the eagles - particularly when I mentioned they probably had hungry chicks in their eyrie. Again this is not unique - this happens every second on so many levels across the world but it was a graphic illustration in a spectacular setting.

Fur seal issues - More fur-seals = less penguins
Something creating tension in our community at present is an expanding fur-seal population. If our fishermen were upset many people would immediately relate to it - but it is the impact on tourism which is the cause. You would think more seals = more opportunity as marine mammals are an important draw for visitors. But the fact that fur-seals have penguins on the menu is the issue. Little penguins, the world's smallest, breed along the shore in two of our towns. In Penneshaw there has been a big investment in infrastructure to enable visitors to see penguins return nightly to feed their chicks waiting in burrows. More fur-seals = less penguins. Somehow this will reach equilibrium but meanwhile it is another opportunity for interpreting wildlife interaction.

Awkward customers
An occasion which shows just how far I can be mentally from my guests in terms of accepting the dynamics of the natural world brought together sea-eagles and penguins. A guest, on the last day of their visit, expressed a passion for penguins which had thus far been suppressed. My response was something to the effect that "it was too late as all penguins were either in their burrows and not coming out, or had gone fishing at first light until nightfall. We could have done something last night but not today." The terse response was "you're not much of a guide - you are saying that because you don't know where to find them"!

My response was something to the effect that "it was too late as all penguins were either in their burrows
and not coming out, or had gone fishing at first light until nightfall. We could have done something last
night but not today." The terse response was "you're not much of a guide - you are saying that because
you don't know where to find them"!

I replied that we were very close to penguin habitat and I would do my best to find what I could. Down to the beach we marched and sure enough there were progressions of close set tracks going from the back of the beach down to the water's edge. In the dim reaches of a crevice I pointed out some of the first blue and white feathers from a penguin hidden in the back moulting and renewing its "wetsuit". This was as much as I expected to find in daylight but to my surprise there on the beach not far from the water was an adult penguin!

Classic Kangaroo Island scene. 
Credit Craig Wickham.

However my guest was not at all pleased - "that is disgusting - why would you think I would want to see that?" As if I knew all along we were going to come across this penguin! It is the only time in over 20 years of guiding on Kangaroo Island that I have come across a freshly killed penguin - this bird was flat on its' back with the skin flayed from the chest and the dark breast meat had been almost totally removed. 

From an interpretive perspective it was superb. The entire story was written there in the sand - from the tracks from the top of the beach towards the water and then a right-angle turn as the penguin saw the sea-eagle approaching and tried to flee. Also captured in the sand were deep impressions of the eagle's talons as it landed on the beach and then one, two bounds before it caught the penguin and dispatched it. To the dismay of my guest the blood still appeared fresh on the sand. Being a very tactful person I chose to refrain from pointing out the fact that this scene illustrated precisely why we would not see penguins in daylight on Kangaroo Island!

I often marvel at my good fortune
Despite the challenges posed by some of my guests I often marvel at my good fortune in being able to live in a place where I can share these experiences with guests on a daily basis. The enthusiasm with which most visitors exhibit and the respect they show our wildlife gives me heart that we can convert this enthusiasm into making room for nature in an increasingly crowded world.