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A proposed gravel mine in the hills south of Perth threatens to devastate the breeding habitat of three federally protected black cockatoo species, incensing local residents devoted to their protection. By Jan Mayman.

The battle to save WA’s endangered black cockatoos

Forest red-tailed black cockatoos.
Credit: ANIMALINFO

Sepehr Vahdat is an Iranian-born immigrant who settled two decades ago on an idyllic property beside the Jarrah Forest in Western Australia. With his wife and children, he has enjoyed throughout that time the distinctive cries of the local black cockatoo population.

But now their local council wants to clear a forest area to mine gravel for roads. This will destroy many ancient trees and the homes of three black cockatoo species – forest red-tailed, white-tailed and yellow-tailed – all protected under federal and state law.

Battling to save the birds, Sepehr has spent thousands of dollars and countless hours on professionally researched environmental reports prepared for various authorities, including the federal Department of the Environment. 

Tall, imposing and eloquent, he lobbies tirelessly, along with his two Australian-born sons.

Sepehr’s parents left their homeland after the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979. They chose exile rather than renouncing their Baha’i faith, as demanded by the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Sepehr was studying engineering at university in the United States when his land-owning family fled to Australia with just a few suitcases. He gave up his studies to join them here.

The Vahdats’ commercial acumen, education and fluent English helped them prosper. Sepehr launched a series of small businesses, from 24-hour storekeeping to printing to self-storage. 

His elegant home is surrounded by 24 hectares of bush in the hills south of Perth. The nearest township is Serpentine, population fewer than 1000, with 27,000 or so living in the surrounding shire of Serpentine Jarrahdale. Only 60 kilometres from the centre of Perth, the more than 900 square kilometres of picturesque land is hungrily eyed by developers.

The Vahdat sons grew up roaming the honey-scented forest, where ancient jarrah and marri trees soar 40 metres above flowering vines, orchids and wildflowers. The air is full of birdsong from a hundred recorded varieties: tiny, delicate blue wrens through to the great, glossy black cockatoos. Butterflies and dragonflies hover over forest pools and rare mammals such as the chuditch and quenda bandicoots rustle the undergrowth at night.

“The forest means a lot to me,” says Matteen Vahdat, 29, an accounting and economics graduate who left a promising public service career in the Northern Territory to return home to stand beside his father on the campaign. 

They are a driving force in the Stop Mining on Scrivener Road action group, which uses social media, petitions and tireless lobbying to spread its message.

Sepehr is motivated by a passionate belief in justice. “I see a lot of injustice in what is being proposed,” he says. “Injustice to the majestic birds that are being wiped out. Injustice to the present and future generations for needlessly destroying a beautiful part of nature. We are passers-by on Earth. We hold things in trust, for future generations…”

His action group has won strong support from the South West Aboriginal people, the Noongar, who hold the black cockatoos sacred. In their timeless religious tradition, the forest red-tailed black cockatoo is the most important deity, the fire god. With wingspans of up to a metre, the birds mate for life, and live for about 50 years, nesting in tree hollows that are centuries old. They mostly produce only one chick a year.

The area around the proposed gravel pit is the most important black cockatoo nesting site in the state, the only place where all three varieties live together, warned a report from the Western Australian Museum, located by Sepehr Vahdat under freedom-of-information laws.

It was “the largest breeding colony of this bird in WA”, the report said in part.

As well as the spectacular forest red-tailed variety, two other white-tailed cockatoos are threatened by the mining plan: the Carnaby’s and Baudin’s. 

The Serpentine Jarrahdale Shire Council maintains that the cockatoos will survive in new plastic replica nests – “cockatubes” – installed in remaining trees around the cleared mine site.

In a submission to the WA Environmental Protection Authority (EPA), the council said the plastic nests would “offset” the impact of the forest clearing. 

It did not explain where the birds would find their food – gumnuts, seeds and insects – though it did pledge to replant suitable trees. 

The federal Department of the Environment was unaware of the unusual offset proposal when contacted, and unable to comment because it was in election caretaker mode.

Cockatoo experts such as Heidi Hardisty, convener of WA’s Cockatoo Coalition, scathingly dismiss the “cockatube” solution.

“It is preposterous,” she says. “Nesting hollows need to be near food-foraging areas.” There are other practical considerations, too. “Will the cockatoos move into the ‘cockatubes’? And has a maintenance budget been guaranteed? It takes over 200 years for natural tree hollows to form.”

A thousand Cockatoo Coalition volunteers are now planting 37,000 saplings around Perth to provide future food and shelter for black cockatoos. But these will take time to mature. They are not an immediate solution.

The 120-hectare Serpentine area was set aside as a gravel source in 1961 by those who thought the vast south-west forest of WA would last forever, or by those who did not care. Today much of it is gone, cleared for agriculture, timber and housing. Logging continues further south. Orchardists and farmers still shoot black cockatoos illegally.

Sepehr Vahdat’s lengthy submissions and letters to the federal Department of the Environment, the state’s EPA and his local council date back two decades: a closely documented and often Kafkaesque litany of bureaucracy.

The scale of the mining operation is still unclear. A 2015 draft management plan on the shire’s website says 100,000 tonnes would be mined annually, most of it onsold to outside customers to make it commercially viable. A linked water management scheme says 80,000 tonnes a year would be mined. The pit would be up to five metres deep, it revealed. 

Yet another plan submitted by the Serpentine Jarrahdale Shire Council to the EPA in April this year – and now on its website – says the output would be 75,000 tonnes a year. 

These figures suggest a large-scale commercial operation, says Sepehr. The proposed output was much more than the council needed for its own use, according to the first plan, which put it at about 15,000 tonnes annually. 

Here, Sepehr’s engineering background informed his research. The gravel is simply not the best option. “It would be cheaper to buy in material like recycled concrete,” he says, “which happens to be superior in quality and environmentally friendly.”

Asked when the council would publish the 2016 draft plan on its own site for public comment, shire president John Erren did not answer the question, submitted twice in writing. His emailed reply said: “Following the close of the public comment period for the Scrivener Road Gravel Reserve Draft Management Plan, the proposed project was referred to a Government agency and they are still in the process of assessing the project.”

The council said it had installed “at least a dozen” plastic “cockatubes” around the gravel reserve but was “unsure how many were being currently used”.

Sepehr says he will never give up: “Australia so generously gave me what the country of my birth denied me: acceptance and opportunity. This is my home and I don’t want a beautiful part of it destroyed.”

He says he is not opposed to development, “but it should take the social and environmental cost into account. The cost of this development far exceeds its benefit.”

He fears for the safety of his 20 neighbours and his family on Scrivener Road if commercial gravel mining goes ahead. He calculates this could mean 5000 giant trucks a year on this steep, dangerous bush track, spilling out into a narrow country highway, which is already notoriously unsafe.

Then there is the Indigenous cost. Ben Taylor, 78, one of Western Australia’s most influential Noongar elders, who was made a member of the  Order of Australia for a lifetime helping his people, speaks of black cockatoos with reverence. “They are the spirits of our people,” he says, “who look after us always.” 

“Uncle” Ben blessed the Scrivener Road campaigners during Iranian New Year celebrations at the Vahdat home earlier this year. He warned that the Aboriginal spirits would punish people who harm black cockatoos. Their enemies would grow sick and die, he said.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 11, 2016 as "Pits of despair". Subscribe here.

Jan Mayman
is a freelance journalist and Gold Walkley winner.

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