Australia’s rainforests have long been cleared to give way to logging and sugarcane fields. Now the comeback of the world’s oldest rainforest has begun with the replanting and the buy-back scheme of the Daintree.
“We use some pioneer species to create substance,” says Justin McMahon.
He’s a land manager and is “building species” by planting some 200 tree species, through his organisation Rainforest Rescue. Some of the plants will grow faster than others and offer shade and nutrients for the ones that follow. Rainforest Rescue collaborates with private landowners in the Daintree, an area of northeastern Queensland, where the natural rainforests up until now have been severely damaged by cattle grazing, sugarcane fields and other developments.
Breeze of change
Recently, however, a breeze of change has begun blowing through this ancient rainforest. Some landowners have started to plant trees, and in doing so, they attract animals such as flying foxes and endangered cassowaries – which disperse fruits and seeds naturally over greater areas. Justin walks over a lot that used to be a sugarcane field, and now instead is home to plants of various sizes. Next to the field grows a forest corridor – where trees were planted just a few years ago – and some now reach above ten meters. Rainforest Rescue and other environmental organizations conduct buy-back schemes where private land is to be regenerated with new rainforest. By the looks of things, it’s a success story in the making.
A new threat
Even so, a new threat arrived in the Daintree during the pandemic. People from large cities like Sydney and Melbourne showed interest in buying up land and moving to remote areas in the area. And with these newcomers, a new challenge has arrived.
“The biggest threats to the lowland Daintree rainforest continue to be inappropriate development, and climate change, with historic fragmentation exacerbating the potential for decline,” explains botanist at Macquarie University, Robert Kooyman, a rainforest ecologist who provides scientific advice to protect intact rainforest areas that are currently outside conservation reserve systems.
He works to restore areas previously cleared of rainforest or degraded by different land uses.
Why is the Daintree so important?
According to Kooyman, the Daintree protects the largest remnant lowland tropical rainforest in Australia. The lowland rainforest also adjoins and connects to upland rainforests rich in Gondwanan plant and animal lineages and evolutionary history.
“It represents a direct connection to that deep time history,” says Kooyman.
He also says it’s important to reconnect small and large forest areas in the Daintree.
“It facilitates the movement of plants and animals, as well as protects the functional integrity of the forests and enhances their capacity to be resilient in the face of climate and other changes.”
Looking ahead to further expand Australia’s rainforests, says Kooyman, requires a combined “toolkit”. He believes that it is necessary to nurture and enhance natural regeneration processes, and to assist those natural processes with weed control, but also to engage in the “scientifically informed restoration planting of trees.”
And that doesn’t mean simply finding the fastest-growing species and planting lots of it.
“We have to mimic nature,” says Marine Deliens, manager at Rainforest Rescue’s nursery in the Daintree. She explains that genetic variation in the plants is crucial, hence giving the plants better chances of survival, as well as dividing certain species to certain areas – where species naturally spread via animals such as birds or wild boars.
The nursery consists of various sections, where the initial stage is “a shade house” in which small tree plants are protected from rain and harsh sunlight. Once they have grown a bit, they can be moved out into the open and unforgiving climate of northern Queensland.
“We want sturdy plants, so we try them out in the sun to see if they survive,” Marine says.
Currently, the nursery produces 12,000 plants annually. But this number is set to increase dramatically when the nursery is to be transferred to an abandoned airport. Up to 150,000 plants are planned for the new nursery.
The ancient forest also has a special significance to the traditional owners of this land – the Eastern Kuku Yalanji people. In September 2021, they took over a combined area of four national parks, consisting of 1,600 square kilometers, including the Daintree. The Kuku Yalanji will hereby formally take over the area as owners and manage the land in partnership with the Queensland government. John Dockrill represents his people and explains that the traditional owners already use their knowledge in replanting the rainforest:
“We are natural gardeners who grow seeds, among other things.”
Elderly rangers share their knowledge in areas such as regeneration of plants, controlled fires and crocodile knowledge for the younger generation. John grew up in the Daintree, and compares his people’s connection to the rainforest with that of the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.
“The forest is our life nerve,” he says, “We must have it in order to exist.”
Forest and reef
The Daintree is famously the only location where two UNESCO World-Heritage listed areas meet. The rainforests stretch out to the Coral Sea, home to the Great Barrier Reef and its WHA-listed reserve. Apart from being an important tool as a carbon sink in the fight on climate change, the Daintree is also preventing leakage of agricultural nutrients from reaching the reef, which is already affected by recurring bleaching events.
“The forest acts as a barrier before the reef,” says Steve Edmondson, a tour operator in Port Douglas.
His family business Sailaway Reef and Island tours takes tourists on reef trips to view sunsets with the Daintree as a backdrop, and is also now involved in the planting of corals in what will be new “coral gardens.”
“We already see how the new corals create ecosystems with many different fish species,” Steve says.
According to him, the reef is resilient and is on its way back after some bleaching events.
“It just needs a little help on the way, just like the rainforest.”
About the Daintree
Located in northeastern Queensland, the Daintree is 180 million years old which makes it the oldest existing rainforest in the world. It is also the largest rainforest in Australia, covering 1,200 square kilometres and hosting 3,000 plant species and a varied fauna consisting of hundreds of threatened animal species such as tree kangaroos and cassowaries. About two-thirds of the country’s bats and butterfly species and over a third of Australia’s frogs, marsupials and reptiles live in the Daintree.
Photos: Johan Augustin