Bettongs and bandicoots return to the Outback

August 13, 1999

Near-extinct species lost from the Australian bush are being re-introduced thanks to the determination of scientists who are helping return the Outback to its pre-colonial glory.

Jeff Short, principal research scientist at CSIRO Wildlife and Ecology in Perth, has spent the past decade working with the residents of Useless Loop, a Western Australian mining town, to convert a peninsula in Shark Bay, 900 km north of Perth, into a conservation reserve where burrowing bettongs and other endemic species can flourish once more.

Burrowing bettongs are rabbit-sized kangaroos that make their homes in communal underground warrens. They had been extinct from the Australian mainland for more than 50 years, but remained on three offshore islands that were attached to the mainland some 800,000 years ago, before the sea level rose following the last ice age.

Dr Short was keen to understand why bettong numbers had declined and then died out on the mainland and why previous attempts at reintroducing the macropods had mostly failed.

"Over the past 200 years Australia has lost a range of species," he explains. This includes at least 18 mammal species since 1788, half of all mammal extinctions worldwide in that period.

"We need to understand why they are dying out - whether it's due to exotic predators such as foxes and cats, or a reduction in their land area - so that they can be reintroduced successfully and further species can be protected."

A physical fence was built across the peninsula's narrow neck to prevent foxes and feral cats, which Short believes are behind the extinction of bettongs from the mainland, from re-entering.

A programme of poisoning, trapping and shooting removed foxes and cats from the peninsula, and bettongs, as well as re-introduced western barred bandicoots, are now doing well in the area. Greater stick-nest rats are about to be reintroduced.

"All these species have not been seen here since the 1930s and 1940s," says Short. "Most Australians would never have seen them before. But when you go back and read the accounts of the first explorers in the 1800s, these animals are mentioned. It's great to see them back in the wild. There's a tourism value to this."

He adds: "But I also wanted to understand the reason why these Australian animals had declined and all but died out.

"Until now, there was no really clear explanation and some scepticism. We needed an explanation before we could introduce them on a wider basis."

He says that a decade after the first reintroductions to the fox and cat-free zones, the bettongs have established a sizeable community on the mainland.

"We now have the proof we need of the role of predators in removing these animals from the Australian scenery," he says, adding that larger introductions are the next step.

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