Australia — A conservation project in the Goldfields is restoring native flora and fauna wiped out after decades of bushfires, feral animals and introduced species.
In 2000 the state government bought the former pastoral property Lorna Glen and set about overhauling the 245,000 hectare landscape to once again host native animals.
Department of Environment and Conservation Senior Research Scientist Dr Neil Burrows has played a leading role in the project named Operation Rangelands Restoration.
Dr Burrows says the property has been de-stocked and they have removed most of the feral camels and cats.
He says many native species, particularly mammals, have disappeared from the arid zone.
“Bilbies still naturally occur in parts of Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland, but they have declined significantly in recent times and before our reintroduction program, didn’t occur in Lorna Glen,” he said.
“We know from old bones found in caves that brush tail possums were there once, as well as a variety of other animals such as mala, boodies, chuditch, numbats and golden bandicoots.
“They have all disappeared from this part of the world over the last 60 to 80 years.”
Dr Burrows says bilbies are one of 11 native mammals being reintroduced into the area.
He says animals from the DEC’s native animal captive breeding programs at Shark Bay, Dryandra near Narrogin and Barrow Island have provided animals to Lorna Glen.
“What we want to do now is monitor them, to see how well they are adapting to their new environment, where they are dispersing to and what their population is doing, whether they are increasing, decreasing or are stable,” he said.
Mike Griffiths from the Worldwide Wildlife Foundation says projects like Lorna Glen are critical to the preservation of Australia’s overall bio-diversity.
“These sorts of projects are really islands of bio-diversity,” he said.
“If these little islands are not looked after and invested in, we stand to lose a whole lot more and once they are gone, they are gone for good.”
Looking to the past
Dr Burrows says finding an effective way to monitor the Bilbies in their new environment has been challenging.
“They are nocturnal, quite mobile and usually only occur in low numbers.
“Bilbies are cryptic, meaning they are difficult to see or trap, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.
“They can spread fairly rapidly across the vast inaccessible desert landscapes, so they are not easy to keep tabs on.
“We have tried several [monitoring] techniques such as trapping, spot lighting and walking through the bush looking for them, but none of these techniques have been very effective .
Dr Burrows says it was then that they looked to the past for inspiration.
“We hit on the idea of using horses, which is somewhat ironic given that we usually turn to high tech solutions to modern day problems,” he said.
“They have got good endurance and they pretty much go anywhere; they are the ultimate all terrain vehicle, but quiet.”
Throughout a three day horse ride observers noted a considerable amount of Bilby activity and have estimated there are more than 45 active bilbies in the small portion of land they surveyed.
Dr Burrows says that given the promising results of the trial, he is looking to carrying out more extensive surveys with local volunteers.
The DEC has been working closely with the traditional owners of the country that includes Lorna Glen, or ‘Matuwa’, as the land is referred to by the Wiluna Martu people.
Lindsey Langford from Central Desert Native Title Services says the Martu people have played an important role in the re-introduction and monitoring of the animals.
“It’s the first time that the local community has been engaged in such a high level project,” he said.
“As a result of the restoration, we have seen an increasing number of Martu people returning to their traditional lands.”
With the help of the DEC, the Martu people have built a camp in the area where they conduct regular meetings.
Mr Langford says each native animal in the area plays an important role in the Martu’s heritage.
“The word for Bilby is Ninju, it’s central to the dreamtime story that makes up part of their belief system.
“Everything has its place and the reintroduction of an animal keeps that story alive.
“For example they would have their own specific song for the Bilby.
“They are reconnecting with a country that they thought had been lost to degradation by cattle and sheep.
“Many of the older people are filled with emotion when they see the land as they remember it.”
Mr Griffiths says preserving the environment in agricultural and pastoral areas has traditionally been overlooked.
“The majority of Australians think of the land as only for wheat, cows and sheep and not much more than that,” he said.
“Pastoral and agricultural areas have been overlooked as valuable habitats for a lot of fauna species.
“However, I think the correction is being made and we are moving on from past mistakes.”