Words by Jamie Jansen


Terry Carmichael’s odyssey through our rainforest’s wonders and challenges

Embarking on a Port Douglas journey often goes hand in hand with an adventure to the magical Daintree Rainforest. But did you know that this rainforest escapade is just a small part of something much more majestic? Stretching an incredible 450 kilometres and covering approximately 900,000 ha between Townsville and Cooktown, it’s referred to as the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area.

Despite occupying a mere 0.12 percent of Australia’s landmass, it boasts the title of the nation’s most biodiverse region, housing an abundance of unique plant and animal species found nowhere else in the world.

This expanse holds global significance. In fact, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks it as Earth’s second most irreplaceable natural world heritage area.

Meet Terry Carmichael, a seasoned naturalist and a local to the area with more than 30 years of experience studying Far North Queensland’s nature.

As Senior Project Officer at the Wet Tropics Management Authority, he plays a pivotal role in safeguarding the Wet Tropics, fulfilling Australia’s conservation commitment.

A masterful storyteller, Terry enjoys educating the public about the global importance of the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area and the effects of climate change on this region.

Driven by a deep passion for nature, Terry will unveil the captivating narratives of the Wet Tropics. Brace yourself to explore its lively past, discover its unique wonders, and meet the extraordinary creatures of this haven. But be ready to face the challenges that put their survival at risk.


Terry’s personal background is intertwined with the natural beauty he now works to protect.

While he has called Far North Queensland home for more than three decades, his roots trace back to Northern New South Wales. His father, who held a deep appreciation for nature, fostering Terry’s lifelong affinity.

“Growing up around the ocean and rainforests deeply influenced me,” Terry says. “Despite moving to Brisbane for high school, my connection to nature remained strong. I was certain about becoming a national park wildlife ranger.”

Pursuing his dream, Terry completed studies in protected area management at Queensland University’s Gatton Campus. With his studies behind him, he journeyed north, eager to explore the biodiversity of the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef.

“My fascination with the Wet Tropics lies in its dynamic tropical environment,” Terry explains. “A thriving landscape teeming with diverse life, outshining other parts of Australia in biodiversity.

“Its mysteries continue to captivate me and I’m content with not knowing everything; I enjoy the lingering enigmas. It’s an endlessly fascinating, complex world.

“The Wet Tropics is a window back in time. Throughout history, our continent evolved from lush rainforest expanses to the driest inhabited continent, the famous ‘wide brown land’. It’s truly a remarkable story.”


To fully understand this story, let’s transport ourselves 50 million years into the past, where Australia was a vastly different place.

Terry explains that in contrast to today’s small rainforest areas, almost the entire continent was once blanketed by lush rainforests. “Back then, Australia was connected to South America and Antarctica.”

He continues, “As Australia gradually disconnected from other land masses and drifted north, it remained isolated for about 35 million years. During this extended period, unique species of plants and animals evolved within Australia. This isolation played a pivotal role in reshaping the continent into one of the driest inhabited lands, leading to the gradual decline of rainforests across Australia.”

“The Wet Tropics have been designated as a World Heritage site due to its status as a remaining piece of what was once a continent-spanning feature in Australia. Apart from the Wet Tropics here in Far North Queensland, smaller areas with similar features exist in central and southeast Queensland, northern New South Wales as well as in the southwestern part of Tasmania.

“In essence, over deep time, climate shifts are natural. The rainforest we have now is just a snapshot of what it once was.”

Terry notes we’ve preserved plant and animal life from that expansive rainforest that once covered the continent. However, we have also witnessed a significant loss.

“Over time, the rainforest’s natural evolution has caused a natural reduction in wildlife diversity due to their shrinking size, making them unable to sustain the extensive variety of fauna they once did across the continent.”

“While what remains within our grasp is truly precious, it no longer encompasses all the unique elements it once held.”


Throughout Earth’s known history, five mass extinction events have occurred, some wiping out as much as 90 percent of life on the planet due to massive climate changes often triggered by volcanic activity. These events happened remarkably fast.

Today, the potential for a sixth significant extinction looms, but this time it’s caused by human activities, particularly climate change.

In the context of our rainforest, this extinction event is already underway. Terry reveals a silent crisis in the Wet Tropics as numerous animal species quietly vanish due to climate change, often escaping public attention.

“The rainforest’s uniqueness lies in creatures exclusive to specific locations within the Wet Tropics, like frogs, possums, palms, and crayfish found only on certain mountain peaks,” Terry explains. “For instance, on Thornton’s Peak in the Daintree, there are lizards and frogs that you won’t find anywhere else.

“We’ve got islands in the sky with climate envelopes that are particular for those species and they can’t adapt in time to the climate change that we’re experiencing now.

“This exclusivity is pivotal to our World Heritage status and it also poses challenges, as these naturally rare animals, already threatened by habitat loss and human activities, are further endangered by extreme weather events.”

As the secretary for the Scientific Advisory Committee within the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Terry closely collaborates with Professor Stephen Williams, who has dedicated more than 30 years to studying Wet Tropics biodiversity.

Over this time, Professor Williams witnessed a significant decline in animal populations at different altitudes in the region, suggesting a connection to extreme weather events rather than a gradual temperature increase.


Let’s delve into some of the remarkable creatures facing threats by climate change, about which some you might never have even heard.

“A prime example is the beautiful White Lemuroid Ringtail Possum, exclusive to the Wet Tropics and the poster child for conservationists during the 80’s to get the Wet Tropics nominated for World Heritage listing,” Terry explains.

“These tiny, furry mammals are the ‘polar bears’ of the Wet Tropics; a species running out of cool places to live.

“They inhabit the forest slopes of Mount Lewis National Park, near Julatten, and other Wet Tropic mountains at high altitudes. They struggle to endure temperatures over 30°C for extended periods, as they’re adapted for cool, stable climates and can’t cool off in rising heat. Unfortunately, they’ve reached the limit of habitable mountain tops due to the warming climate.”

“The health and vitality of the wet tropics rainforest is indebted to the cassowary, which disperses forest seeds across extensive areas.”

The beautiful Green Ringtail Possum is particularly special to Terry, with its fossil history tracing back 28 million years.

“These possums, being leaf eaters, possess a unique digestive system aided by symbiotic bacteria that aid in detoxifying their food, and currently one of our scientists is studying potential climate-induced changes in leaf toxicity.

“These possums play a crucial role in the ecosystem, forming part of the food web by eating the leaves of rainforest plants, which in turn become a food source for owls, pythons, and spotted tail quolls.

“While their loss wouldn’t lead to the extinction of rainforests, it would signify the disappearance of a rich and intricate story within this ancient ecosystem, raising questions about human interference in such a fascinating and valuable biodiversity.”

Discover the elusive Tree Kangaroos, rarely seen despite road signs in the rainforest. Two species reside in Australia: Bennett’s Tree-kangaroo and Lumholtz’s Tree-kangaroo.

The Bennet’s Tree Kangaroo is the largest tree-climbing mammal in Australia and is only found between the Daintree River near Mossman and the Annan River south of Cooktown, while Lumholtz’s reside in Queensland’s Tablelands.

Terry explains that Tree Kangaroos have an intriguing history.

“Current understanding suggests that kangaroos and wallabies originated from animals resembling tree-climbing possums. However, Tree Kangaroos, a quite recent species, reversed the family trend and went back into the trees.

“Their adeptness in climbing stems from their lengthy tail, which serves as a counterbalance, their broad feet that firmly grasp branches, and their distinctive foot motion. This motion enables them to walk like us, moving both fowards and even backward along branches, a trait uncommon among other kangaroos or wallabies.

“Both Bennett’s and Lumholtz’s Tree Kangaroos are classified as near threatened, indicating some challenges but not immediate danger. Nevertheless, caution remains essential in their conservation.”

To end on a more positive note, there’s good news about the cassowary. This large, vibrant, flightless bird, related to emus and ostrich, is native to the Wet Tropics and Cape York region and serves as the emblem of the Wet Tropics Management Authority.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the ‘Cassowary Recovery Team,’ which Terry supports, and the collaborative efforts of 30 partners, the cassowary population has reached a stable point.

“While we’re encouraged by the progress, we remain watchful for the future,” Terry underscores... “The health and vitality of the Wet Tropics rainforest is indebted to the cassowary, which disperses forest seeds across extensive areas.”


Terry stresses that preserving what we have left is essential and that the challenge lies in making people realise the uniqueness of our beautiful rainforest.

“Ensuring the safeguarding and restoration of the areas adjacent to the World Heritage Area and National Park estate is equally crucial, as everything is interconnected,” he emphasises.

“I believe each of us needs to take steps to reduce our environmental impact. The key message is to lighten your footprint, reducing your environmental impact by being mindful of your consumption habits.

“We are at an important juncture in time and it’s only a matter of one extreme weather event - let’s hope this summer is as gentle as possible.”