ON Monday morning Jeannette and I and three others from Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) are heading into the Cloudlands, a part of the rainforest in the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns. The area was largely destroyed to make way for agriculture, for ranching and dairy farming, and only about 5% of the original forest remains. It is the natural habitat for the cassowary, an endangered flightless bird heavier but slightly smaller than an emu. There are only 1500 still alive in the wild and their habitat is becoming more and more fractured. They can only be found in Far North Queensland.
Our work will be to assist the replenishment of the rainforest, planting trees and removing weeds (and trust me, when you are talking about Stinging Trees, these are pretty serious weeds) in order to restore cassowary habitat. All of this effort makes the cassowary sound like the most beautiful bird in the world.
Let me verify at this stage that they are not. They are ugly and menacing creatures. If you annoy one it will charge at you, pointing either its huge talons or the bony crest on its head (which allows it to bump off of trees) at your chest. They can and have killed by doing this. Only this morning at a crocodile farm the group visited I was chased around the outside of an enclosure by one of these creatures. I made the mistake of turning my back on it, and instantly it was charging.
In Gerald Durrell's 1962 book Two In The Bush, he talked of an animal centre with kangaroos, wallabies and a cassowary called Claude, who charged and pounded any animal that got between him and his food. He recalled that in one pen, the kangaroos had learnt to get out of the way of the pouncing bird at the last second, such that Claude fell rather comically flat on his face. I do hope I get to see this happen: this morning I was genuinely scared of the thing, even though there was a fence between us.
Yet it doesn't matter that it's not a particularly nice animal. It is endangered, through every fault of our own, so it's our turn to do something about that. This is why we shall be spending at least a week in a forest full of plenty of things that fancy us for lunch, trying to build a new home for these awesome animals.
We've had our safety talks, we've bought the gear, so it's off into the wild we go.
I am really, really excited.