Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, spring 2019, issue 112


A Tasmanian rescue centre for injured raptors has become the first Australian philanthropy project for luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent.

It’s autumn in Hobart, and I’m wrapped in just about every item of clothing I own in order to brave the top deck of our boat as it battles winds roaring along the River Derwent. The sky is blue, the southerly is strong and the air traffic is minimal – in short, we have the perfect conditions for sending a wedge-tailed eagle and a junior sea eagle home. Whether because of the gale-forced gusts or the emotional nature of the day, there are few dry eyes when we drop anchor off South Arm Peninsula, the same place these majestic raptors were rescued earlier in the year. Following months of medical attention and rehabilitation, the birds are now ready to retake their skies.

Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

Tasmanian story

A land where the wilderness is wilder, the air cleaner and the water fresher than anywhere else in Australia, Tasmania seems like the ideal environment for flora and fauna to flourish. Indeed, it’s a wonderland for hundreds of species of birds, 12 of them endemic. But sadly, many are also rare and threatened, thanks to hazards such as habitat loss through logging and wildfires, agricultural poisons, wind farms, bullets and power lines; reports show that more than 100 birds of prey die here annually due to preventable issues, like electrocution. Today, raptors such as the Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle are on the nation’s critically endangered list, with only around 130 pairs successfully breeding each year. Thankfully, the state is also home to people like Craig Webb, whose mission is to prevent these incredible winged creatures from facing extinction.

A concreter-turned-nature-advocate, Webb opened the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge Centre in 2001 to rescue injured eagles, hawks, falcons and owls, nurse them back to health, then return them to the wild. At the start, his passion project was entirely self-funded, with assistance from big-hearted volunteers. But over the decades, Webb has established fundraising drives and a sponsorship program, with the newest patron being Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy (AKP).

Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

The charitable arm of luxury tour company Abercrombie & Kent, AKP is dedicated to conservation and sustainable tourism projects in the destinations it visits. Today, it operates more than 40 such ventures worldwide, with a goal to “help nature thrive and cultures flourish by positively impacting lives and livelihoods through investments in education, conservation, health care and social enterprise,” says Sujata Raman, regional managing director for Abercrombie & Kent Australasia/Asia Pacific.

Raman and others in the organisation were so inspired by Webb’s commitment to Tasmania and its environment that they selected Raptor Refuge to become the first Australian project in its philanthropy portfolio. “We were thoroughly impressed by the work Webb and his team are doing and recognised it as a perfect fit for AKP, which identifies conservation as one of its four driving pillars. Raptor Refuge’s mission to care, rehabilitate, release and protect Tasmania’s birds of prey tackles this head on,” says Raman.

A sky-high vision

A raptor is any bird that can pick up prey in its claws and fly away with it: think, sea eagles, most types of owls, wedge-tailed eagles and peregrine falcons, the fastest animals on earth, able to travel up to 390km/hr. “Tassie has 13 species of raptors, and we’ve had 12 here at the refuge,” says Webb.

The increasing threat to raptors in their natural habitats means that Webb is now providing care for to up to 40 birds at a time, the number increasing steadily since the 2018 launch of the centre’s 1800-RAPTOR hotline. “In the early years, we’d just get a few injured birds brought in through word of mouth; now, since the hotline, we get maybe 90,” he says. “We built an aviary to care for them while nursing them back to health. Then bigger birds started coming in, so we built a bigger aviary.”

Australia’s only wilderness refuge with a working hospital dedicated to raptors, Webb’s facility has the largest flight aviaries in the country.

Spreading the message

While Webb’s goal is to help the animals recuperate and release them back into the wild, some rescued raptors are so badly injured that they won’t survive if set free. And so a handful of birds now reside at the refuge, living in soaring enclosures.

Aside from keeping them safe, the birds’ permanent presence here helps educate the community about their plight, with Webb and his team of volunteers working with local farmers and school groups to demystify raptors and their behavioural patterns.

Guests booked on Abercrombie & Kent’s Tasmanian itineraries are also given the opportunity to find out more, with Webb opening his private estate and offering behind-the-scenes tours for those visiting with the travel outfitter – there’s the chance to come nose-to-beak with raptors that have been rescued over the years, as well as chat to the volunteers helping keep the birds alive.

Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

Meeting the Residents

Webb introduces us to Witchiepoo, a wedgie rescued from a “wildlife park” where she was mistreated for 12 years. “She couldn’t even fly when she arrived,” Webb says. “It took months to get her strength back, and every day she became more and more cheeky. One day she stole a broom from me when I was cleaning her aviary – she flew around with it like she was from the set of a Harry Potter movie!”

Thanks to sponsors such as AKP, Webb now has the funds to hire staff to help him clean and build aviaries, as well as provide medical assistance, and boost local and global awareness. 

Ramen is confident that given the company’s recent Antipodean growth, additional AKP projects like the one with Webb will become a reality in the near future. “The Australian market is our second-fastest growing market after the UK, and 2019 is already seeing growth of 11 per cent year on year,” she says.

Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

Release day

“When they’re ready to go, they tell me,” says Webb, explaining how the wedge-tailed and sea eagle we’re about to let loose changed their flying habits and behavioural patterns as they became fit and strong once again.

Webb researched suitable release points for weeks, knowing they had to be close to where the birds were rescued and they had to be an environment free from other raptors, which are notoriously territorial. Having settled on the South Arm Peninsula, Webb spent the morning luring the enormous birds into carriers with the help of his teenage son, Ziggy.

Webb looks skyward, and all of Abercrombie & Kent’s guests follow his gaze with anticipation. Then he releases the enormous wedge-tailed eagle into the air. “Good luck darling! Fly well.”

Winged wonders: raptor conservation in Tasmania

TRAVEL FACTS

Touring:

Visit the Raptor and Wildlife Centre with Abercrombie & Kent through Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy – akphilanthropy.org

Abercrombie & Kent – abercrombiekent.com.au

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