Rex with a painting he did of Maria Island

50 years on: Original Maria Island Ranger shares his memories

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​Fifty years ago, Maria Island was declared a National Park. Today, it is one of our premier visitor destinations and a place of natural and historical significance for Tasmania. To mark the 50-year anniversary, Tasmania Parks and Wildlife caught up with Rex Gatenby, who was the first Ranger on the island.

“You don’t realise where the time goes,” Rex Gatenby said while sitting on a chair in his Trevallyn home where he now resides with his wife, 150 kilometres away from the island he had previously called home.

Back in 1968, Rex and his wife Marie, along with their three children – Kathy, Patsy and Debbie - relocated to Maria Island, to help introduce a number of endemic wildlife species to the island.

“I started as a Wildlife Ranger in 1968 with the Animal and Birds Protection Board on Maria Island,” Rex said.

Three years later, in 1971, the protection board became part of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Before becoming a Ranger, Rex was a lighthouse keeper working on Tasman Island and Cape Sorell, but he thought working at Maria Island would be a good challenge.

“I just like the outdoors,” Rex said.

He said what attracted him to moving to Maria Island was the opportunity to spend more time with his family and live as a family.

While on Maria Island, the Gatenbys were some of the only people residing on the island and were virtually self-sufficient. The French family also maintained a presence on the island during this time to work their sheep.

They had a milking cow, pigs, chickens, ducks and a vegetable garden from which they sourced most of their food, providing sustenance for a hard day’s work.  They made their own cream, butter and bread and had ready access to fresh seafood.

One of the key programs Rex was charged with was the introduction of wildlife to the island before it was a National Park, on the basis that the island would provide a safe refuge for them. During this time the island was declared a Sanctuary.

Prior to the arrival of the Gatenby family, Rex said that the wildlife on the island was in decline. Due to the lack of a presence on the island, there was nothing stopping people from poaching the wildlife until Rex took up residence.

“My job was to look after the animals once they delivered them to me and keep the poachers away,” he said.

Wildlife Rangers on mainland Tasmania would trap animals and bring them over to the island for Rex to introduce. He would house them in a 50-acre enclosure to let them adjust to their new surroundings before releasing them into the wild.

A smaller enclosure existed behind the historic Darlington building “Coffee Palace” which encompassed part of Bernacchi Creek. Rex also enclosed a gutted convict building with chicken wire to establish an aviary for the introduced cockatoos.

Other animals introduced included kangaroos, wallabies, ringtail possums, bandicoots, wombats and a range of birds such as emu, Cape Barren geese and native hens.

One kangaroo in particular made a mark on the family, and that was a forester called ‘Skippy.’

“We raised him from a joey, and he hung around as a pet,” Rex said.

Pygmy possums were another animal the family hand raised on the island.

Rex fondly remembered stumbling on his first pygmy possum after felling an old, dead tree for firewood.

“When it came crashing down, out came these little pygmy possums,” Rex said.

Another animal encounter engrained in Rex’s memory was when an unexpected guest turned up on the island.

“A king penguin turned up at Maria, we didn’t interfere with him, he was a lovely big animal,” Rex said.

Rex said that after extensive investigations concluding no wombats were on the Island, a species from Flinders Island (which was genetically different from the mainland Tasmanian one and in danger of extinction), was introduced.

“There were once emus in Tassie but they became extinct. They were a shorter leg variety than the mainland ones. It was hoped that by selective breeding, a similar variety could be achieved on the island. Many people did not support this action so the National Parks and Wildlife Service dropped the project.”

During his three-and-three-quarter years working on the island, Rex took school groups, walking clubs and other groups around the site and undertook extensive cleaning up on the island, in addition to the animal conservation work.

One specific project he undertook was cleaning up the rubbish left over from the old cement works, while his wife Marie home-schooled their children via correspondence school.

The majority of the cement works were extremely unstable and were demolished for safety reasons.

“The original contractor was unable to complete the work on demolishing the cement works due to not having suitable equipment for the job and we eventually got the Australian Army to take it on and complete the job as an exercise. We didn’t intend to demolish the silos, which were in fairly good condition and we decided to retain them for historic interest, along with  the old clinker store which was intended to become a bird aviary.

“In preparation, I cut all the steel work down on the intended bird aviary, but a large girder fell over my foot, trapping me.  I had to cut it off me with an oxy torch.  After NPWS (National Parks and Wildlife Services) was formed, there was little interest in pursuing the Fauna Boards’ plan of turning this structure into a bird aviary.”

In 1972, Maria Island officially became a National Park. In consideration of the island’s significant vegetation such as the Eucalyptus globulus (blue gum) and Eucalyptus viminalis (white gum) forests and woodlands. These areas were not only threatened, but also provided critical habitat for the endangered swift parrot and forty-spotted pardalote.

Shortly after the declaration of the National Park, Rex was presented with a new opportunity to take up the position of Senior Ranger at Port Arthur.

“The girls were growing up so I thought if I take the Port Arthur position, I can get them back to school,” he said.

Rex remembers his time on Maria Island very fondly.

“The whole thing was a great experience. We were in for all sorts of challenges back in those days.”

Since that time, in September 1991, a section of the north-western coastline of Maria Island was declared a marine reserve. The marine reserve extension was listed to protect a representative range of the marine habitats found on Tasmania’s east coast and the most diverse range of marine life in the state. 

The island has also been recognised as having historical significance, with the Darlington Probation Station being included in the 11 Australian Convict Sites World Heritage Area serial listing on 31 July, 2010. The site is Australia’s most intact example of a convict probation station and demonstrates an important phase of convict management in Australia.

Published 27/11/2022