‘I’m living my childhood dream working with koalas’
Gráinne Cleary spends her time getting to know the local wildlife in New South Wales
‘Part of my work was to run a Great Koala Count, using a smartphone app that allows people to record where they see koalas.’
I was born a wildlife ecologist. Before I even know what the word meant I was sure I wanted to work with wildlife around the world. This passion was cemented when my family moved to Tanzania when I was 10. Other kids my age were cheering on Ireland at the World Cup, while we were driving through the Serengeti, watching migrations and identifying birds.
Following my dream was always going to be hard as I’m quite badly dyslexic and couldn’t get the points to go to an Irish college or university. I couldn’t do Irish for the Leaving Cert and only did five pass subjects, so I had to leavefor Hampshire in England, to do a Higher National Diploma in Wildlife Management.
This course allowed me to get into second year of a zoology degree at the University of Aberdeen.
But I always wanted to study in my own country so after my degree I stalked a Trinity College academic to see if I could study for a PhD there. As luck would have it a PhD on badgers, funded by the Department of Agriculture, came up. I spent months researching everything I could on badgers and was accepted. I really loved doing the PhD and working with farmers from all around Ireland.
In 2007, during the last year of my PhD, myself and my husband Bill started the visa process for moving to Australia. We left before the crash; it was purely a desire to travel and see more of the world.
When we moved to Australia, in a moment of madness we decided to take our cat, Freddy, with us. He was quarantined for six weeks after arriving and we used to sneak him in cans of tuna when we’d visit. We were so homesick at the time. He was our connection to home.
One day I opened the fridge and this massive cockroach fell out. Freddy and I looked at each other, he ran one way, I ran the other and we were both thinking “what the hell is that? I want to go back to Dublin”. A year to the day after we came to Australia he disappeared, which broke my heart.
I worked as a volunteer in Taronga Zoo for a year learning about Australian wildlife and applying for postdoctoral grants. Working with academics from University of New South Wales, we received a grant to reintroduce native rats which had been pushed out by black rats. The project attracted a lot of public interest. It reminded me of interacting with the farmers back home and what a buzz I get from working with the community and wildlife.
Doing this project, I spent a lot of time getting to know the local wildlife. When I’m walking through the bush I stomp hard to let the snakes know I’m coming and they move away. But you have to be very careful with funnel web and red back spiders when you are setting pitfall traps. It’s not like digging a pitfall trap in Monaghan. Digging them here can kill you.
After three years on the native rat project, I started working to help conserve koalas. Koalas are quite an urban species; 80 per cent of them are found on private land and are declining in many places due to threats such as dog attacks and vehicle strikes. Part of my work was to run a Great Koala Count, using a smartphone app that allows people to record where they see Koalas. This has been extremely successful, and will become an annual event in Australia. For someone who watched Skippy as a kid and had a koala teddy bear, I’m living the dream now, working with koalas.
My Mam and Dad and sister have been out to visit a few times, and they loved it too. But Australia just isn’t Ireland! We were in Dublin at Christmas, and seeing family and friends over pints of proper Guinness and sharing the banter reminded us of what we are missing. There is no place in the world like Ireland and we will eventually go home. I would love to work with Irish wildlife and farmers again.
- In conversation with Pádraig Collins