An invasive species devastating fragile ecosystems across northern Australia is on the back foot in one of the Top End’s most untouched rivers.
Rubber vine kills native flora and fauna, damages pastoral land and chokes waterways from Queensland to Western Australia’s far north.
A group of people in WA’s remote Kimberley region are using innovative technology to fight back, and they’re winning.
For the past eight years, John Szymanski has led the battle against the plant in the Fitzroy River, one of the country’s last pristine river systems.
The fishing tackle distributor from Gracetown fell in love with the National Heritage-listed river and decided to make it his mission to eradicate rubber vine.
“Rubber vine is Australia’s worst, most destructive weed,” he said.
“If it was left here unchecked, there would only be rubber vine left, there would be no diversity.”
Mr Szymanski has developed a sophisticated arsenal that includes a custom-made helicopter mapping system, remote cameras and a team of dedicated volunteers working from their living rooms around the country.
As a result, less than 1 per cent of the infestation remains.
For almost a decade, Mr Szymanski worked to prevent the weed from taking hold as it had in the river systems of central and northern Queensland.
With local Indigenous contractors, he started to map the infestation on foot — walking up to 30 kilometres a day for weeks in dense bushland in near 40-degree-Celsius temperatures.
The exhausting work was essential to help “understand the enemy”.
Once established, invasive plants are almost impossible to remove, according to weed ecologist Dr Dane Panetta from the University of Melbourne.
“Unfortunately successful programs are relatively rare,” Dr Panetta said.
“I would say in Australia, the success rate [for eradication programs] would be in the order of 5 to 10 per cent.”
Challenges include establishing an accurate location of every plant, locating every last seed and finding funding to cover the costs of the program.
With funding from the WA Government and private organisations including Kimberley pastoralists, Mr Szymanski has been able to fine-tune his techniques.
The clever use of technology has also improved his odds.
Without a dedicated army, mapping the 270-square-kilometre Fitzroy River area on foot was unrealistic so the rubber vine team turned to the air.
By attaching specially-designed cameras to the underside of a Robinson 44 helicopter, the team was able to capture every inch of bushland from above.
Volunteers sifted through hundreds of thousands of images, pinpointing each plant by its distinctive white flowers — all from the comfort of their homes.
With operating costs at about $1,000 an hour, the team deployed remote cameras that captured and transmitted the moment the blossoms appeared.
The method helps to maximise air-time and keep costs down.
“These cameras mean you get the most accurate flowering data to make good decisions which really save us money,” Mr Szymanski said.
Success in sight
Based on his latest data, Mr Szymanski believed there were fewer than 150 rubber vine plants left around the Fitzroy River.
He said he was determined to keep working until the last plant was dead.
“We remind ourselves all the time what a magnificent place this is and we just can’t let rubber vine destroy it.”
It’s hoped the region can be declared free of rubber vine within the next several years.