The accidental conservationist

One man's chance discovery of an urban platypus led to a battle to save its home.

Platypuses. These egg-laying aquatic mammals are among the world’s most intriguing animals, a mystery to even the scientists who study them. And in the case of Pete Walsh, it turned him into a platypus guardian.

For years, he had heard rumours that a mythical urban platypus was inhabiting Hobart’s waterway. To be honest, he said, he’d not really given it a thought.

Then COVID hit. Like many Aussies in those pandemic years, walking was about the only thing Pete could do. And with the Hobart Rivulet Walk on his doorstep, and photography both a sometimes-career and a passionate hobby, he took his camera along while he pondered both the nature surrounding him and the state of the world. And then it happened.

“It was just one of those things where you get a feeling and you peek your head over the water bank,” he says. “And then you see a platypus. There were so few people around and the animals really seemed to come out across the city.”

Pete Walsh on the Hobart Rivulet Walk. Image: Supplied

Pete had started his walk at the foothills of Mount Wellington, from which the water flows down to the River Derwent before going underground beneath Hobart’s city. Polluted and filled with rubbish and debris thanks to long having been used as a stormwater drain, it seemed remarkable that any life form – let alone a platypus – could inhabit these waters. Pete was not only about to find out that they could, but that more than just one platypus had made a home here.

He spent hours photographing the remarkable creatures. “They are incredible from start to finish really,” he says. “They are perfectly evolved for their world. It’s such a small creature but packed with so many superpowers. They are graceful and peaceful and just deal with whatever comes along really pragmatically. It’s almost like a meditation how they exist.

“When you walk along the rivulet on the walking and cycling trail, it’s very picturesque. You can hear the waterway bubbling away. But it’s a different thing to be in it. As you get to know it more, you get to understand how polluted the waterway is, how many machines like excavators we put in it and how it affects animals like the platypus. There’s a misunderstanding that the presence of a platypus means it’s a pristine waterway. There’s no truth in that. They are just surviving on what they have got.”

That particularly hit home when he saw a female platypus struggling with a loop of rubbish around her bill. As he rushed to try to help, he was struck with an all-encompassing thought: He couldn’t stand by and watch anymore. It was time to get involved. 

A Hobart Rivulet platypus. Image: Pete Walsh

“In that instant, I felt ill just looking back on my life and going, ‘I have consumed nature my whole life and never really given anything back’,” he says. Knowing he couldn’t do it alone, he enlisted others – and now his efforts have not only made some positive impacts, they’ve inspired the ABC documentary The Platypus Guardian.

Dr Chadden Hunter was one of the scientists Pete reached out to early in the piece, and he was amazed at what Pete had discovered. “My goal was to find out if his platypus was a random sighting, or if there really was a population in this creek that could sustain itself,” he told documentary makers. “Pete started noticing things that even us wildlife biologists weren’t noticing.”

When filming began in earnest, it was believed that the health of the creek had maybe 12 months left at best. It’s impossible, Pete says, to reverse the damage we’ve done in just a few short hundred years since European settlement. “Some parts of the world are probably beyond saving here. But you can draw a line in the sand and separate the waterway and go, ‘Everything from that point back, we have to look after. And we have to fight for.’”

Community groups were formed to help clean out the rubbish, and trees were planted along the banks to help waterbugs – the staple diet of the platypus – to replenish.

A Hobart Rivulet platypus. Image: Pete Walsh

Habitat destruction and the effects of construction and stormwater drains has had an impact. And there’s still a way to go. But, says Pete, “there have been some positive changes in the last few years. It’s just happened the wrong way around.”

It’s always been illegal to put excavators in waterways in which native animals live. The problem was until now nobody knew that the platypus were there. Today, Pete says with a hint of satisfaction, “there’s definitely an awareness in the council that if they don’t know what’s going on with the platypus, they should definitely find out before they do anything in the waterway.”

The next step, he urges, is public awareness – not just of the fragile state of the platypus, but of many of our precious native animals around the country.

“I don’t really buy into the ‘humans saving the world’,” Pete says carefully, not wanting to sound like a martyr to a cause. “It’s more that we need to do less harm. We need to reflect on the harm we have done and own it so we can go forward.”

Pete and a staff member of Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary study an X-ray of a Rivulet platypus. Image: Supplied

“The community has the power to drive change if they will just use it to pressure all the people who manage things on our behalf. I hope there is a sense of urgency. We need to get on with it, all of us.”

And so, says Pete, it’s time to take a closer look at the natural world around us – no matter what part of our great land we call home – and see what’s really going on. His quest for the platypus is far from over. And they are not the only animal under threat.

“Pete’s journey reminds us that we should all use the time we have to try to make a difference,” Dr Hunter reflects in the closing moments of the documentary. “He is just one person, not a scientist or an expert. We are just past the tipping point where more than 50 per cent of all humans on Earth live in a city.

“So this is where we are going to experience nature. This story doesn’t just happen here. It happens in your town. It happens everywhere around the world.” 

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