17 December 2010

Browsing the news, checking emails and eating breakfast are early morning priorities for many people.

But not Professor Craig Franklin. The first thing he does at home in Brisbane each day is check on the whereabouts of 13 estuarine crocodiles, which are spread across Cape York in far north Queensland.

After numerous trips to the remote Wenlock River region, Professor Franklin's research team from the UQ School of Biological Sciences has attached satellite trackers to the crocodiles, allowing their individual movements to be monitored remotely, in precise detail.

"Each colour here is a different crocodile, and each point is a position fix," he says, pointing to the Google Earth image that he scans so intently each morning.

"The amazing thing about this new technology is its accuracy. You can go right in and find a spot like this here's a high-activity zone. You can see, even along creek beds, exactly where the crocodiles are."

It's all about the science for the researcher and his colleagues, but their involvement with the Cape's ecology has also thrust them into a high-profile battle involving the State and Federal Governments, the "wildlife warrior" Irwin family, Indigenous groups and a bauxite mining company.

Professor Franklin and his team work on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, a 1350sq km area of spring-fed wilderness wetlands about 80km north of Weipa.

The Irwin family, which runs the Australia Zoo tourist park north of Brisbane, bought the Cape York land in 2007 with the help of a $6.3 million Federal Government grant, and runs it as a conservation and scientific reserve in memory of Steve Irwin, the conservationist and international media star who died in 2006.

After the Irwins acquired the Cape York property as part of the National Reserve System, it seemed the land and its wildlife would be protected forever, but then in 2008, lease applications were lodged with aims to establish one of the world's 10 largest bauxite mines there. In October the project was put on hold, with the mining company citing political and environmental issues.

The Queensland Government's Wild Rivers legislation, first passed in 2005, was designed to protect the ecological integrity of Cape York and its river systems, and the Wenlock was declared as a wild river this year.

Terri Irwin said her late husband regarded the area around the Wenlock as "the most beautiful place on earth".

Professor Franklin and his team have been working in the area for seven years, but began a long-term research project, now on its second linkage grant, from the Australian Research Council in 2007.

He said the Wenlock River had the richest freshwater fish diversity of any Australian river, and supported a critically endangered population of spear-tooth sharks, about which almost nothing was known.

The area is also home to the endangered freshwater sawfish, rare birds and threatened, highly vulnerable plant species.

"The Wenlock River is hugely important because of its impressive biodiversity," Professor Franklin says.

The area is largely uncharted scientifically, but one startling early discovery is that the area's spring water is naturally acidic.

"What's fascinating is that if you look at the pH, it is approaching the phenomenon of acid rain that has been seen in the northern hemisphere," Professor Franklin says.

"Here we have almost equivalent pH levels occurring naturally, yet life is abundant and the organisms have evolved to cope."

He said the team hadn't even scratched the surface in terms of the discoveries waiting in these springs and the surrounding rainforest.

Professor Franklin said crocodiles were a threatened species on the Cape, and their numbers and densities remained low after being almost hunted to extinction in the 1970s.

His team's research has also shown that estuarine crocodiles travel far larger distances than was previously known. They make lengthy journeys in open sea, riding tidal flows right around the top of Cape York and between Pacific islands.

Through the intensive capture and tagging procedures, which require enormous planning, logistics and manpower the team attaches satellite transmitters, which function for a year to 15 months before falling off.

But Professor Franklin said a long-term study using acoustic transmitters inserted under the crocodiles' skin was needed to provide detailed data on the effects of environmental change.

He said working on Cape York was "exciting, but challenging".

As well as the political and mining issues, the area's remoteness and inaccessibility during the wet season can make for gruelling work.

Indigenous groups on the Cape remain divided over the Wild Rivers legislation, but Professor Franklin said there was plenty of local support for conservation and research.

"A big part of our work is educating people, local residents. So Terri Irwin and myself give talks to schools and community groups wherever possible," he says.

Professor Franklin said the Irwins deserved praise for their commitment to conservation on Cape York, noting the family privately funded maintenance on the reserve.

"It is purely because they believe it is an area that deserves our protection, which I strongly agree with."

Professor Franklin said the overriding factor for him is the area's enormous scientific potential.

"I feel extremely privileged, and humbled, to be able study there, with the support of such committed partners," he says.

"It is very clear that the flora and fauna are related to the unique water composition of the region. This is a totally new discovery to mankind and deserves much further research."

See a video of Professor Franklin's team at work on Cape york here.
To follow the crocodiles by satellite, visit www.uq.edu.au/eco-lab

Media: Professor Craig Franklin, ph +61 7 3365 2355; or UQ Communications: Fiona Cameron ph 07 3346 7086; Penny Robinson ph +61 7 3365 9723.