Dr Liberty Olds, Conservation Manager, Zoos South Australia
There's a buzz of excitement building at WWF-Australia and amongst the Marna Banggara partners about some very precious passengers that will soon make an epic journey across the Nullarbor Plain. These aren't your average holiday-makers; in fact, it's a homecoming that will make history. Dr Liberty Olds, Conservation Manager at Zoos South Australia details the upcoming groundbreaking arrival.
In mid June, in a specially chartered aircraft, 20 critically endangered brush-tailed bettongs will be flown to South Australia's Yorke Peninsula in the next momentous stage of the Marna Banggara rewilding project. Restoring the peninsula’s landscape started with a feral predator control program and construction of a 25-kilometre predator control fence.
Now, in partnership with the community, Traditional Owners, the project’s lead organisation the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board and other stakeholders including the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, we get to the thrilling part - the reintroduction of some of the endangered species that haven't lived there for decades.
As you might expect, transporting the bettongs from the west is a monumental undertaking that's been years in the planning.
It will all begin in the dark in the West Australian bush, where our recovery team will trap bettongs (or woylies) from a stable population. But not just any bettong is suitable for this critical mission: we need animals of the right age and sex and without any large pouch or dependent young. They must also be in excellent health.
Once they've narrowed down the candidates, a team of experienced vets will give each one a general anaesthetic to conduct complete check-ups and blood tests. When given the nod, the chosen ones will also have radio-collars fitted. These tasks need to be carried out quickly - we don't want the bettongs anaesthetised any longer than necessary.
When the intrepid 20 have been identified, they'll be given a little time to recover from the anaesthetic, then swaddled in calico bags to minimise stress and simulate nocturnal conditions. It will also be reassuring - a little like entering the safety of their mother's pouch.
For the duration of the flight, these bags will be suspended inside protective pet packs that can absorb any unforeseen bumps. But, again, time is of the essence. The pilot will chart the most direct route across the continent.
When the bettongs touchdown in South Australia, they will again receive a health check before being driven to their release site. There, they will be greeted by the local Narungga people with a very special Welcome to Country and released at dusk. This will give them enough time to familiarise themselves with their new home, have something to eat and drink, and find a nesting spot for the day before it gets completely light.
The translocation is timed to coincide with a good season on the peninsula and when there is a lower risk of predation by foxes and feral cats, but we'll immediately begin radio-tracking the animals to keep an eye on their movements.
Scores of people are heavily invested in the success of this operation, and there's a lot riding on these jet-setters. Bettongs turn over truck-loads of soil while foraging, improving water infiltration, nutrient cycling and native plant growth as they hop through the bush. They're also very proficient seed dispersers, which makes them vital ecosystem engineers and the perfect pioneering species for Marna Banggara.
When the brush-tailed bettong disappeared from Yorke Peninsula, so, too, did many plants, changing the character and complexion of the entire landscape. With its return, we hope to begin restoring the long-lost ecological balance, and the bettong will be the first of four locally extinct species reintroduced to Yorke Peninsula as part of our shared Marna Banggara vision.
By bringing back the peninsula's diggers and seed dispersers, and in time some natural predators, we're aiming to repair and renew this fragmented environment. It's species recovery and regional rehabilitation on a grand scale. And we’re absolutely thrilled to be a part of it.
Stay tuned for more news about this long-awaited homecoming.
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 the Scientific Expedition Group.