The Marna Banggara project on the Yorke Peninsula is a step closer as Western Australian woylies gear up for a historic move to South Australia.
One of the most exciting conservation projects in Australian history has stepped up a gear as preparations are underway to bring back wildlife not seen for a century, following an important survey in Western Australia.
Unbeknown to them, a population of brush-tailed bettongs (or woylies) near Manjimup, 307km south of Perth in Western Australia, has given the green light for a rewilding project the likes of which we've never seen before. In fact, this industrious marsupial is a real ground-breaker, in more ways than one.
Come winter, a group of bettongs from Manjimup will be translocated to the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia to re-establish a colony after an absence of more than 100 years.
It's part of the ambitious Marna Banggara project - a unique collaboration that has seen WWF-Australia partner with the Northern Yorke and Landscape Board, the Narungga Traditional Owners, farmers, tour operators and residents to create a living ark for a suite of endangered species.
The critically endangered bettong was once found across 60% of the Australian mainland. An energetic gardener, it turns over truck-loads of soil each year in search of underground fungi, thereby improving water infiltration, nutrient cycling and native plant growth. In the process, the bettong also spreads seeds and fungal spores, laying the groundwork for future plant communities.
But habitat loss and degradation and predation by foxes and feral cats have all but decimated brush-tailed bettong populations across our continent. Now, this vital ecosystem engineer is found only in small pockets of Western Australia and possibly two islands off South Australia.
Its loss has had profound impacts. Without the bettong on the Yorke Peninsula, some plants have also disappeared. Slowly but surely this has changed the character and dynamics of the landscape.
Marna Banggara (meaning healthy country, prosperous country in the local Narungga dialect) seeks to restore the peninsula's rich diversity, starting with the return of the bettong. Everything is almost in place. The construction of a 25-kilometre fence and extensive predator controls has created a safe haven. Now, all we need is to repopulate it with locally extinct animals.
It's a radical strategy known as rewilding, which aims to restore ecological processes by bringing back the animals responsible for them - the diggers and seed dispersers and even natural predators. By restoring the health of the environment, we also hope to deliver positive flow-on effects for agriculture and the local economy.
As the pioneers, the bettongs carry the hopes and dreams of an entire community, so we're doing everything we can to ensure they not only survive but thrive. Those we translocate need to be young and healthy, capable of moving house and breeding successfully.
That's why the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions survey in November was so important. Researchers trapped and surveyed bettongs in the Manjimup region to assess the population's health and size.
They captured 138 woylies (the WA name for the brush-tailed bettong) and confirmed that they were indeed healthy and that the population is growing. Bettongs were found in 69% of traps, up from 57% in 2018, and it's estimated that there may now be 40,000 living in this 110,000-hectare patch of forest.
With evidence that the population is strong and stable, we can progress plans to translocate about 40 bettongs in winter, when conditions on the Yorke Peninsula are likely to be at their best. If this advance party does well, more bettongs and then other critically endangered species will follow.
There will be countless valuable lessons to learn from this ground-breaking conservation project, which we may be able to apply to other Australian species and environments. With your help, Marna Banggara and those hard-working brush-tailed bettongs will make history.
This project is jointly funded through the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board, the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program, the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, WWF-Australia and Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.
Other partners actively involved in developing and delivering the project include Regional Development Australia, South Australian Tourism Commission, Zoos SA, FAUNA Research Alliance, BirdLife Australia, Nature Conservation Society of SA, Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation, Primary Producers SA, Primary Industries and Regions SA, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Legatus Group, Yorke Peninsula Council, Yorke Peninsula Tourism and Scientific Expedition Group.