Hidden deep in the Blue Mountains among the steep cliffs and eucalyptus canopy lies a living fossil.
The Wollemi Pine thrived 91 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed the earth.
It was thought to have gone extinct two million years ago, until 1994, when an off-duty park ranger stumbled across a grove of these prehistoric giants.
There are less than 90 Wollemi Pines remaining in that single grove west of Sydney. No more have been found in the wild since.
“It’s been described as the botanical find of the century,” said Dave Crust, Blue Mountains branch director of the NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS).
“The fact that such a small population just remained in this incredibly remote canyon in Wollemi National Park is pretty remarkable.”
The discovery was grand but for the past three decades, a dedicated team has been working to conserve these ancient trees.
7.30 was granted exclusive access to visit one of three translocation sites, where the NPWS has planted hundreds of Wollemi Pines to expand the tree’s footprint.
“A translocation site is somewhere where we introduce a threatened species into another location in an area, in order to kind of provide an insurance population,” Mr Crust said.
“The population was at a number where any significant event impacting … could have caused their extinction, so we’re at a point now where we’re trying to rebuild that population.”
Dinosaur trees amongst thick bush
The translocation site was established in 2019 and more than 300 Wollemi Pines have been strategically placed among the thick bush.
From the outset they look similar to a fern with apple-green foliage, but they have a unique bark texture that has been likened to the cereal Coco Pops.
The Wollemi Pines at the translocation site are quite small, ranging in size from 30 centimetres to 2 metres tall.
“Wollemi Pine seedlings and saplings grow less than one centimetre a year. They won’t mature until they can reach the rainforest canopy and access the sunlight above,” research scientist Berin Mackenzie said.
“That’s usually about 20 or 30 metres, so you do the maths. That’s many decades.
“In over 30 years of monitoring them, the Wollemi Pine recovery team has never seen a seedling, or a juvenile tree, make it to adulthood.”
The trees have been planted in a number of different positions at the translocation site to see what promotes the best growth — from rainforest to eucalypt forest and on rocky ledges — as well as protect the trees.
Top secret translocation sites
Just like the original grove, the whereabouts of the translocation sites are kept top secret.
They are closed to the public by law – an unauthorised visitor could face a $330,000 fine and up to two years imprisonment under the Biodiversity Conservation Act.
The team itself minimises visiting the pines and when they do it’s under extremely strict protocols, and for essential purposes only.
All staff must thoroughly clean their gear beforehand and when walking towards and near the trees they constantly spray their boots, clothes and gear with a special solution of methylated spirits to reduce the risk of spreading disease.
“One of the biggest dangers that we have is people actually come and visit these. We know people want to but they really can’t,” NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe said.
“Whether they survive in the wild and do not become extinct relies on not spreading pathogens, and people visiting is one of the biggest dangers for it.”
Part of the original grove that was found 30 years ago has in fact been infected with a pathogen called phytophthora, also known as root rot, which slowly kills the tree.
The NPWS team believes it was introduced by an unauthorised visitor.
“People think that they can visit it safely without having an impact, and it’s just not the case,” research scientist Berin Mackenzie said.
“Phytophthora is microscopic, you can’t see it with the naked eye, and it just takes one gram of infected soil to be introduced into the site and that’s it, there is currently no cure.
“We have no way of eradicating the disease, just managing its impact.”
The team hold serious concerns that the infected trees will eventually die, adding even more importance to the work they’re doing at the translocation sites.
“It’s really important the public are engaged, and people appreciate the significance and scientific importance,” Mr Crust said.
“It’s also really important people respect that confidentiality and don’t try and visit the site, because we know there is a high risk of phytophthora being introduced and it can be fatal to the plants.”
‘It’s much bigger than us’
The other serious risks that threaten the extinction of the pines are bushfires and climate change.
In 2019, bushfires wiped out almost all of the pines at the translocation sites, leaving only a few dozen remaining, so the NPWS team planted hundreds more in 2021.
Lisa Menke, an area manager at the Blue Mountains branch of the NPWS, said they were able to save most of the original grove where the mature trees were, but “it could have been a very different outcome”.
“We were lucky … the fire actually came through overnight, which meant that it was a bit cooler than if it had come roaring through during the middle of the day,” she said.
“We have worked hard to keep fire out of the pine sites, and we have to work even harder into the future.
“It’s something that I probably won’t be seeing through with the rest of my career, because our involvement with the Wollemi Pines is such a short period in the lifetime of a pine.
“So I’ll be handing on my knowledge and my team’s knowledge to other fire managers in the future.”
Wollemi Pine seedlings have been shipped across the world to botanical gardens and can be purchased at nurseries in an effort to save the species and discourage people from trying to access the grove and translocation sites.
No one in the NPWS knows what a Wollemi Pine smells like in the wild, the answer is always “methylated spirits” because of their dedication to protecting the trees.
“The species was discovered in the nick of time and on the brink of extinction. We have a really rare and important opportunity here to intervene and help it persist,” Mr Mackenzie said.
“I think that’s what drives everybody. It’s much bigger than us.”
Ms Sharpe wants the trees to survive “for another 91 million years”.