Tasmania: The Underrated Wildlife Paradise of Australia
Australia is a lot of things, but most undoubtedly, it’s huge. 7.7 million km2 huge. This means the biodiversity across this single country is vast. From the enormous gorges of Western Australia to the tropical rainforests of North Queensland and the red sands of the Northern Territory there is a lot to see. One state that rarely makes the postcard photos, however, is Tasmania.
Tasmania is an island off the southeast coast of Australia. Despite daily ferries to and from Melbourne and flights that cost less than an evening meal, Tasmania’s cooler climate and lack of a greyhound stop seem to discourage many travellers. Some of this makes sense. Hobart’s population is little over 200 thousand and its nightlife just can’t compare to that of Melbourne or Sydney. Equally, some of the best beaches take an entire day to hike to. Tasmania doesn’t give you the same easy laid-back lifestyle that mainland Australia does. It gives you something entirely different and so much more. For the naturalist, Tasmania is the true gem of Australia.
Firstly, around 40 percent of Tasmania is comprised of National Parks and Heritage sites. Where even the most physically challenging hikes of Australia are never more than 6 hours return, expect to see most of the popular hikes in Tasmania are at least 3 days (some up to 3 weeks). Most of the West coast is comprised of vast mountainous areas. Whilst driving up these mountains, the terrain changes multiple times. Grassy plains turn to dense rainforest which makes way for baron wilderness and snowy peaks. This is undoubtedly the most interesting element of Tasmania. It doesn’t take an expert in ecology to understand almost immediately the importance of this island from a geographical perspective. Mount Fields National Park is a prime example of this where sulphur-crested cockatoos call from the jungle trees just 15 minutes from the snowy peak of the mountain
Mount Fields is just a short (by Australian standards) drive from Hobart. For those who are not experienced alpine walkers, it is easy to see the iconic waterfalls and complete some short walks in a day trip. Tasmanian weather varies massively throughout the day, let alone the year. Although the Australian summer begins in December it is not uncommon to see snow in Tasmania right through November. Nor is it uncommon to experience 30 degrees heat in the same month, so every experience feels truly unique.
For the wildlife enthusiast, the pinnacle of Tasmania’s nature lies in Cradle Mountain. This mountain sits at 1500m above sea level and holds the majestic Lake St Claire. Walks around the Cradle Mountain National Park average out at around a few hours. A full loop around the lake will take the best part of a day and there are walks further afield that can take a few days. It is here where one of Australia’s most iconic animals can be found. The Common Wombat is a marsupial native to southeast Australia and Tasmania. Cradle Mountain is an excellent place to spot these wombats foraging for food throughout the day, despite them being largely nocturnal. The one photographed below is an adult male. Though it is not uncommon for tourists to see adult female wombats with joeys in their pouch.
Another iconic Australian animal is the echidna. Belonging to the same family as the duck-billed platypus, the echidna is one of only two egg-laying mammals. The echidna is similar in appearance to a hedgehog and is often called the ‘spiny anteater’. They forage through the forest floor in search of insects and curl into a ball when disturbed. Because of this defence mechanism, they are somewhat bold in personality and can be spotted on the open grasslands of Mount Cradle. There are two remaining species of echidna. The short-beaked echidna which inhabits most of Australia and Tasmania and the long-beaked echidna native to New Guinea. This genus has the lowest body temperature of any mammal and thus has an extremely slow metabolism. This means that these tiny animals can live up to 50 years. The preservation of wild spaces across Tasmania means that seeing animals native to the mainland such as the wombat or the echidna, is much more likely. It also highlights the importance of conservation across the country.
A perfect example of this is the presence of the echidna’s closest relative, the platypus. This is where I must digress slightly from a well-informed third-person overview of the glory of Tasmania and bring my own personal luck into the mix. Following a lead from a local business owner, I headed to a patch of river on the outskirts of Hobart to try and find a platypus for myself. A lot of walking, through a lot of rain with a lot of staring into the river at my own reflection, proved to be successful. A small fast-flowing river leading to the Cascades Brewery between Hobart and Mount Wellington played host to possibly the strangest creature on the planet.
The Platypus is a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal with an electric bill, venomous spurs, and no nipples. Although these animals inhabit the entire east coast of Australia, they are very rarely seen. They are the only surviving members of their family and genus, though fossil records suggest that relatives did once exist. As these animals lay eggs they have no need for nipples to feed their young, instead secreting milk through their skin. The males, on the other hand, possess spurs attached to a venom gland on each ankle. These spurs are used in self-defence and the venom can kill small animals and create excruciating pain for humans.
Although extremely rare, one other prominent spot where sightings are slightly more common is the Daintree rainforest. The Daintree is the most northerly and tropical point in Australia, almost 3700kms from Tasmania. For the travelling wildlife enthusiast hoping to see one, fast-moving water with suitable embankments to burrow is the preferred habitat (though climate varies). They are also crepuscular meaning that they are most active at dusk and dawn.
Tasmania is home to just three species of snake. The Tiger Snake, the copperhead and the white-lipped snake with all three considered dangerous. Interestingly enough, however, one of the most prominent displays of evolution can be found with Tasmanian tiger snakes. It was originally thought that there were multiple species of tiger snake across Australia however recent research suggests otherwise.
Tiger Snakes are no stranger to coastal regions as they often feed on hatchling sea birds. The Tasmanian variation of the tiger snake is typically black whereas the mainland variation often has distinct stripes. This is because of the difference in climate, allowing the darker individuals to absorb heat much quicker. Typically the difference between the Tasmanian and the mainland variations are purely aesthetic. Though scientists discovered that certain individuals that were swept away from Tasmania and developed a population on smaller off-shore islands would have smaller bodies to help them reach burrowing sea bird chicks. Equally, those that would eat the chicks of cliff-nesting sea birds would be larger, allowing them to take on larger prey.
The Tiger snake pictured below was spotted at Cradle Mountain around mid-afternoon on the enchanted walk. Ironically, it was spotted less than an hour after a local shuttle bus driver for the mountain said she had not seen one on Cradle Mountain for years (so spotting reptiles further lowland may prove more successful).
Other reptiles that inhabit Tasmania include a whole spectrum of skinks. As one of the hardier types of lizards, ocellated, metallic and white’s skinks can all be spotted amongst rock crevices on sunnier days. One of the most popular National Parks in Tasmania on these sunny days is Freycinet. Situated on the East coast of Tasmania, Freycinet is a peninsula that’s covered in beautiful beaches and incredible hikes. The hikes that trail throughout Freycinet vary in length and with a visitor centre so close to the beach, this National Park makes a brilliant holiday destination.
It is possible to spot Australian fur seals off the coast of Freycinet on rocky outcrops. These seals are common in the cooler waters of Australia and New Zealand. The seasonal migration of humpback and southern right whales also flow through Tasmanian waters and there are multiple viewpoints across the East coast to potentially spot one of these marine giants.
Of course Tasmania’s most iconic animal, the Tasmanian devil is endemic to the island. This critically endangered species is almost never spotted in the wild. After talking to multiple locals it was made apparent that while their screeches and calls can be heard in the forest, a sighting is extremely rare. The Tasmanian devil is a carnivorous marsupial that is currently suffering from a tumour-related disease. Experts suggest that there are only 10-20 thousand of these animals left on the planet. With conservation efforts across the island and a breeding project on Maria Island (off the east coast of Tasmania) humans are desperately trying to protect this species from extinction.
Tasmanians are all too familiar with the extinction of wildlife as the Thylacine or ‘Tasmanian tiger’ proves. The thylacine was hunted to the brink of extinction in the 19th Century as farmers believed they were killing livestock. Eventually, as zoos across the world turned their attention to remote places like Tasmania, the thylacine was captured and presented in Europe as an endangered species. The last known live animal was captured in 1933. Although looking very similar to a wolf, the thylacine is a marsupial that used to inhabit the Australian mainland. The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart has a brilliant exhibition on these animals. Some conspiracy theorists still believe that the thylacine exists in remote locations in Tasmania. While this idea seems somewhat unlikely, what is inarguable is the true value of Tasmania and its unique flora and fauna.