The night was bracing and the sky awash with stars when a young Narungga boy knelt to the ground and gently untied the cloth bag.
A furred snout popped out, illuminated by torchlight. The small crowd hushed.
Then, in a flash, the brush-tailed bettong bounded into the dense mallee of Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park.
It was the first of 36 jet-setting bettongs released on South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula (Guuranda) in June as part of the groundbreaking Marna Banggara project, during a whirlwind 48-hour operation that will resonate for generations.
Woylies welcomed to Narungga Country in a meaningful gesture
“Each and every one will leave a footprint on our Country,” said Garry Goldsmith, from the Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation. “The reintroduction of these bettongs starts to bring Country back to where it should be. You can then see what it means to have healthy Country – Marna Banggara.”
The endangered animals (known as woylies in the west) had begun their epic journey in the forests of the Noongar Nation, more than 2,000 kilometres away in southwest Western Australia. After being caught, undergoing health checks and being fitted with tracking devices, they were carefully stowed and flown across the Nullarbor. The bettongs were on their way to make a new home on Narungga Country, in a cross-cultural exchange like no other.
Noongar and Narungga people come together in a cross-cultural exchange like no other
“Woylies play a vital role in helping us to sustain and manage Country,” said Iszaac Webb, Wadandi (Saltwater People) cultural custodian of the Bibbulmun (Noongar) nation. Iszaac was one of the Noongar Traditional Owners who escorted the precious cargo. The Noongar people’s generous gesture warmed hearts on the coldest of nights, and Iszaac was proud to be a part of it.
“Working with Traditional Owners from other parts of Country to re-establish woylie populations has been great … to help protect their Country as well. The collaboration and knowledge sharing shows the unbroken connection we have to Country; it’s part of our kinship as Aboriginal people.” - Iszaac Webb, Wadandi (Saltwater People) cultural custodian of the Bibbulmun (Noongar) nation.
“It was endearing of our Countrymen to give something that is a part of them to us, to bring new light and new growth to our Country,” Garry said. “There are no divisions or lines in the sand when it comes to helping our Country to replenish, to heal. Our dreaming has always been that we’re connected, not only by our stories but also by our spirit and values.”
This exciting translocation means 120 bettongs have now been reintroduced as part of Marna Banggara. Last August, 40 pioneering bettongs from nearby Wedge Island in South Australia settled into the predator-controlled area of the peninsula. Another 44 bettongs from Wedge Island followed the Western Australian group, ensuring a strong mix of genetic diversity in the ambitious landscape restoration project.
Bettongs: part of the songlines of Guuranda (Yorke Peninsula) once again
“Bettongs are the first species to be put back into this ecosystem because of their really significant role as a soil engineer,” said Rob Brewster, WWF-Australia’s Rewilding Program Manager. “They turn the soil, improving moisture retention and penetrability, burying seeds and leaf litter and creating the conditions for regeneration and germination. Having this species back is a huge benefit for the future of the landscape and its resilience.”
It has taken an incredible team effort to get this far, according to Derek Sandow, Regional Ecologist with the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board. “The most amazing experience for me has been working with Traditional Owners,” he said. “It’s great to see the bettongs get out on the ground, but it’s also great to see the cross-cultural exchange between the Traditional Owners.”
For Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation Project Officer Cyril Kartinyeri, it was deeply moving to see bettongs returned to Country, his Country, after an absence of more than 100 years. It continues an arc that dates back millennia.
“That young nephew releasing the first bettong,” Cyril said. “Him being involved sets up for the next generation, to carry on what we’ve started.”
And it’s not just the Yorke Peninsula landscape and a suite of endangered wildlife that are set to flourish as Marna Banggara unfolds.
“It makes our family’s hearts very happy.”
“These woylies are part of our family, so now the Noongar and the Narungga, we are like two families that have become one family,” said Iszaac. “It makes our family’s hearts very happy.”
Visit the Marna Banggara project to learn more about the Narungga Land and the project’s partners.
The Marna Banggara project is jointly funded through the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board, the Australian Government, 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.