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#AceNewsDesk – Safe haven welcomes Aussie natives in bid to save species
It weighs between just one and two kilograms, has soft grey fur, lives on a diet of truffles and has a long tail with a curl at the end that helps it construct a nest.
The undeniably adorable Northern Bettong is one of just five remaining species of bettong which used to be abundant across Australia and it’s estimated there are just over 1000 individuals left in the wild.
In an effort to ensure the animal is not lost forever, the first of 55 Northern Bettongs have been released in a recently completed 950-hectare haven established at Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary.
After years of planning, a fence was built, feral predators moved out and the habitat nurtured back to health with fire and ecological thinning to prepare the land to welcome the Northern Bettong back.
Years in the making
Dr John Kanowski, chief science officer with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, said until recent years there were wild bettongs at the property, but have become extinct in the last twenty years.
He says it’s “amazing to get to this point” and hopes to see populations grow.
“[I’m] bloody proud,” Dr Kanowski said.
“I’ve looked for this animal here many times.
“I’ve sweated a lot of sweat to try to find it and then to try to restore the habitat, so to have it back here it is fantastic.
“It gives us hope for Australian wildlife.”
Dr Kanowski said he has been working for about 14 years on the project to save the animal.
Two groups of Northern Bettong populations remain
There are just two remaining populations of the animals in Far North Queensland. One numbering about 1000 on the Lamb Range and another of around 30 at Mount Carbine.A group of Northern Bettongs have been moved from Lamb Range into the new wildlife sanctuary.(Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)none
Near Lamb Range, 55 bettongs were captured and placed into the new refuge.
“There used to be eight species of Bettong,” Dr Kanowski said.
“Three of the eight are completely gone, completely extinct, and there are four out of the five that are threatened.”
Recently, the animal was listed as one of the 20 Australian mammals most likely to go extinct.
“They’re really bite sized for cats and foxes, that is why they’ve really gone extinct,” Dr Kanowski said. Northern Bettong are a “bite-sized” prey for some animals.(Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)none
“Indigenous fire management was really important for them as they like to eat the food that comes up after.”
The impact of other wildlife and the elements
Cattle grazing and pigs also compete with the Northern Bettong and degrade their habitat.
Within five years, it’s hoped the relocated animals will have bred successfully and will be escaping into the surrounds.
“They’ll be climbing the fence and ‘they’ll be going ‘see you later, we are going to go and live in the rest of the country’,” Dr Kanowski said.
“I want there to be too many bettongs in five years, not too few.”
Sanctuary manager Josh McAlister said traditionally fire would have been used by indigenous people to manage the country, but the practice had been ‘excluded from the area’ through grazing and forestry operations.Josh McAlister said fire can impact the creatures, who like to feed on the post-burn regrowth.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)none
“Every two to three years when the country was able to carry fire, it would have been on fire,” Mr McAlister said.
He said without fire, rainforest species would start coming into the wet sclerophyll forest and blocking light to the ground, stopping grass growth.
“The wet sclerophyll forest is a very small band on the edge of the rainforest. It is a very niche patch all down the western edge of the wet tropics.”The Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary is bordered by an electric fence that keeps predators out.(Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)none
While the Australian Wildlife Conservancy has built other exclusion fences around sanctuaries across Australia, this is the first of its type in northern Australia.
The fence has additional posts to add extra strength, is electrified and has measures to stop predators from burrowing in or climbing over into the enclosure.
Monitoring to keep out predators
The area was monitored for six months to ensure all predators were removed.
“Within the fence, we’ve got 90 remote cameras (camera traps) through this area,” Mr McAlister said.
“We removed two pigs out of the area. With these fences, things can jump out, but they can’t get back in.
“We did have cats that we knew about in there. We were really lucky that those cats have jumped out.”A number of species have been removed from the sancutary to ensure Northern Bettongs populations can thrive.(Supplied: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)none
He said well over one million images taken from the camera traps were analysed, and the last detection of a predator was in late November, 2022.
Before the bettongs were released into the refuge, they underwent checks to ensure they were as healthy as possible.
Many adult females carrying young were also released.
Why are conservationists and First Nations trying to save the Northern Bettong?
Australian Wildelife Conservancy ecologist Felicity L’Hotellier said, while the animals were “cute and fluffy”, there were many more reasons they needed to be saved.Felicity L’Hotellier said bettongs are a valuable part of the ecosystem.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)none
She said bettongs are highly valued in the ecosystem and act as truffle spore dispersers.
She said the founder animals for Mt Zero-Taravale were sourced from multiple “sub populations” to create a new “genetically-robust population”.
“We know that small mammals like this can flourish when feral cats are removed from the equation,” Ms L’Hotellier said.
“If the population grows at the rate we anticipate, the Mount Zero-Taravale population could approach 500 bettongs within four to five years.”
Over the next few months, Australian Wildlife Conservancy will monitor the translocated animals using radio-transmitting collars.
“A population of this size, within a secure safe haven, not only acts as insurance against extinction of the species, but can also provide a source for founders in possible future reintroductions,” Ms L’Hotellier said.
Harry Gertz, from the Gugu Badhan traditional owners, said the species is significant to his people and reintroducing the animals was historic.Harry Gertz hopes the conservation efforts will inspire the next generation to care for country.(ABC News: Baz Ruddick)none
“The country is whole again,” he said.
“To get them back on country, to see them around, you know your country is healthy and it’ll be a great thing for us to have them back.”
Mr Gertz said he hopes the release will inspire younger generations to care for country and the animals on it.
The haven has been funded with money from the Commonwealth and state governments, as well as the Oak Foundation, WIRES and donations from supporters of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy.
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