World Animal Day: let's protect our natural world

On #WorldAnimalDay, Australian rugby player David Pocock talks about his connection with animals and ecosystems and calls for action to protect the environment
Wind energy on Global Wind Day

In September 2002 my family arrived in Australia with a bunch of suitcases. We’d left our farm in Zimbabwe to start a new life in Australia. A nature-obsessed kid, I’d spent hours trying to learn what I could about Australian wildlife - a far cry from the animals we encountered in the Zimbabwean bush. We were staying with friends who farmed in the same area and had moved to Australia a year before us. They generously took us in while we tried to find our feet - a story familiar to so many migrant families. Mom was no doubt trying to get my brothers and me out of the house and out of our host’s hair on our second day here and took us down to a local park which is where we stumbled upon our very first wildlife sighting - a koala in a gum tree.

We were so excited. Having watched and loved Steve Irwin and read so much about Australian marsupials we thought there must be koalas everywhere. Over the next decade, despite spending a lot of time in nature, I didn’t see another koala in the wild. And then, it was only in Canberra’s Tidbinbilla sanctuary that I finally managed to see one again.

The sad reality is that Australia is a world leader in mammal extinctions. From habitat loss and fragmentation through land clearing (including taxpayer subsidised old-growth forest logging) to land degradation, climate change and the impact of invasive species, we’re doing an astounding job of leaving the threats to our remaining wildlife in place. Cats alone, an introduced species, kill over two billion reptiles, birds and mammals every year in Australia. That includes domestic cats who kill 230 million native Australian birds, reptiles and mammals every year.

In the wake of the bushfires - with 3 billion animals killed or displaced - and the ongoing work to understand our ecosystems, it’s clear koalas and many other species are in very grave danger. Scientists are telling us we’re standing on the precipice of two major environmental crises - a climate crisis and a biodiversity crisis. Despite knowing all this, here in Australia, we spend just 0.2% of our national budget taking care of the natural world. And our leaders are busy trying to weaken our environmental protections to make it easier for land to be cleared and mines to be approved.

We have an opportunity this year to change the course we’re on. World leaders are working toward a global agreement to safeguard the future of the natural world, the future of our home. But, just like we’ve seen with the climate crisis, it’s going to take more than our governments to solve this. If we want to protect koalas and all sorts of animals, we need to protect and restore habitat.

That’s why, last weekend, with a bunch of mates and a group of volunteers from Sydney we spent a day on Vince Heffernan’s farm near Dalton, NSW. Vince’s family has been farming there since the 1830s but he’s been running the farm for the last 20 years. Vince’s approach is to farm in a way that works with nature, not against it, and by doing that he has produced award-winning lamb, improved his soil, and created habitat for all sorts of native animals. He's planted over 40,000 trees and seen bird species return to the farm that have been absent for decades.

Our visit to the farm was to take part in a tree-planting, supported by Greening Australia. With just over 30 people we managed to plant 1,800 trees and shrubs across one of Vince’s paddocks. Before we started Vince and Graham from Greening Australia explained some of the bird species who’d benefit from this particular project, minutes later a small flock of Superb parrots, with their bright green colouring and distinctive call, flew through the field.

After a long, sweaty, dirty day of planting trees, I looked around and saw so many of my friends laughing and grinning as they packed up the shovels and leftover bamboo stakes. Every single one of them asked me to let them know about the next tree planting day. The sense of community, hope and joy was an unexpected byproduct of a day most of us said yes to because it seemed like the right thing to do.

We certainly need policy change and more money spent on the environment but that will only happen when more of us are involved in taking care of our home. We can turn this around if we’re willing to act ourselves, support farmers like Vince and groups like Greening Australia, and demand our governments do more. Koalas, superb parrots and so many other iconic and little-known Australian species are counting on us.