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Reintroducing Native Species Down Under

Volunteers Help Group Fight for Forgotten Animals in Mallee Country

Fit as a Mallee bull is an expression often heard in outback Australia. It conveys a sense of grudging admiration for someone who's as tough as nails and could survive just about anywhere.

The mallee is a spare, stunted tree that once dominated 20 percent of Australia's vast inland. Adapted to arid and semi-arid conditions and shallow soils, it can survive drought and fire with ease.

Unfortunately, the European settlers failed to recognize that mallee country was home to a thriving, mostly nocturnal population of native rodents and small marsupials. Vast tracts of the land were cleared to make way for wheat and wool, and in the process, whole species were unwittingly wiped out or brought to near extinction.

Some years ago, sickened by the continuing loss of species and the failure of governments to halt the losses, a group of entrepreneurs began buying up blocks of land and fencing it off to keep out the non-native animals. They began reintroducing near-extinct animals that once occupied the particular habitat, as well as flora native to the region. Some of the animals had only managed to survive on islands just off the mainland.

The first of their unique sanctuaries, Warrawong, in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia is now well-established and is setting the standard for sanctuaries elsewhere in the country. It is one of the few places in Australia where you can see the duck-billed platypus living and breeding in its native habitat. Even for a born and bred Australian, this is a thrill--so few have seen them in their natural state. There are also wallabies, bandicoots, woylies, bilbies, as well as native fish and birds thriving in the place.

The success of this small project encouraged the group, since named Earth Sanctuaries Limited, to buy up more mallee forest and start a second and larger sanctuary using the same principles.

Yookamurra Sanctuary has one of the last stands of old growth mallee in Australia. Visitors to Yookamurra--which like Warrawong has accommodations on site--are taken on dawn and dusk walks to see bilbies, bettongs, sticknest rats, hopping mice, pademelons, and of course the better-known wallabies, wombats, and kangaroos. The place is literally hopping with native animals most Australians have never even heard of.

One of the great successes at Yookamurra has been the reintroduction of the numbat. Twenty years ago there were only 100 numbats left in the world, and wildlife documentary maker David Attenborough predicted they were the next mammal to face extinction. Today they number about 2,000, and Yookamurra is one of the few places you can actually see one in the wild.

The numbat?s destiny is closely linked with the old growth mallee. As Dr. John Wamsley, a founder of Earth Sancutaries Ltd., is fond of pointing out, it takes 400 years for a mallee tree to form a hollow big enough for a numbat to live in. In a region with only eight inches of rain a year it takes 100 years or so before the trunk measures a modest four inches in diameter.

Coincidentally, the numbat and other small mammals play an important role in protecting the mallee from bushfire. Because of their foraging, they prevent the buildup of undergrowth that contributes to the massive wildfires that are increasingly common in Australia.

Earth Sanctuaries is now working on its next project--395,000 acres (250 square miles) of arid country that was formerly owned by two cattle stations. Known as Scotia, this land lies in outback country a couple of hours by car from Broken Hill in western New South Wales. Eleven of Australia?s most endangered mammals will be reintroduced--every one of which has been rendered extinct in New South Wales.

Other sanctuaries are in the planning stages. The goal is to have one percent of Australia fenced and free of non-native species within 25 years and to reintroduce and conserve as many of Australia?s unique creatures as possible.

RAELLE ALLEN is a Sydney journalist and author. At the invitation of ESL, she accompanied Dr. John Wamsley and Professor David Bellamy on a three-day tour of Warrawong, Yookamurra and Scotia Sanctuaries. Plans are underway for a book documenting the early years of the organization and its phenomenal successes in wildlife conservation in Australia.