Locally extinct bandicoots have returned to an Australian national park in New South Wales after more than 100 years.
The nationally threatened species, known to local Aborigines as ‘talpero’, once spread across the Australian outback, including the area that is now managed as Sturt National Park.
Small native marsupials became extinct in the region after changes in the ecosystem caused by rabbits and predation by wild cats and foxes.
Now, the Wild Deserts team has reintroduced a founding population of talpero to the area.
Their reintroduction is another important milestone in the Wild Deserts conservation project, which last year reintroduced bilbies and mulgaras into the national park.
“The season has been tremendous here with the rains we had last year and then again in March,” says UNSW’s Dr. Rebecca West, an ecologist with Wild Deserts.
“These rains have contributed to creating a highly productive system that is excellent for the reintroduction of this species.”
Until recently, western barred bandicoots were considered a species with five subspecies, but this has recently been divided into five species. Only the Shark Bay species, the species relocated to Sturt National Park, survived. UNSW scientists acknowledge this important taxonomic work.
This remaining species has moved to two islands and three fenced locations. The conservation reintroduction of Wild Deserts came from one of these, a self-sustaining population at Arid Recovery near Roxby Downs.
Supported by governments for their conservation value, the Wild Deserts Conservation Reintroduction recognizes the important role this species complex played in ecological function, important for the restoration of desert ecosystems.
The Wild Deserts team eradicated every last rabbit, cat and fox from two 2,000 hectare wild animal-proof fences within Sturt National Park, creating one of Australia’s largest wildlife-free areas.
These exclusions in the wild function as “training zones”, where reintroduced vulnerable species can learn to live in the wild without the dangers of predators such as cats and foxes.
When their populations begin to thrive, the animals will be released into a second predator training area, where they will learn to become intelligent predators.
The ultimate goal of the project is to return to nature a more intelligent generation of bandicoots and other locally extinct mammals.
New South Wales Minister of the Environment Matt Kean says: “The reintroduction of this important species to Corner Country in Sturt National Park is another major step in our battle to stem and reverse the tide of mammalian extinctions.
“Our goal is to restore ecosystems to the way they were before feral cats, foxes and rabbits wreaked havoc on Australia’s native wildlife.”
Talpero are the smallest members of the bandicoot family, roughly the size of a guinea pig. They can be distinguished from other bandicoots by their beige fur with pale stripes on the rump.
Nocturnal marsupials dig for food in sandy environments, digging foraging pits to find seeds, tubers, insects, and fungi. This process converts the soil and helps it trap water and nutrients, contributing to the overall health of the ecosystem.
The Wild Deserts team has introduced 10 Talpero as a founding population, but they hope to add more members soon.
“If they continue to do as well as they are, then I think we can add more characters to the mix,” says Dr. West.
“Hopefully that will reestablish the bandicoots in Sturt National Park in the future.”
An ecosystem in recovery
Talpero’s founding population is from Arid Recovery, an independent non-profit research and conservation project that runs a large wild animal-free safe haven near Roxby Downs in South Australia.
The marsupials were released in the southern enclosure of Wild Deserts, called ‘Mingku’, named for the word that means happy in the Maljangapa language. The talpero joined two other recently reintroduced species, the bilbies and mulgaras.
“This is an important step in restoring this desert ecosystem,” says Professor Richard Kingsford, Wild Deserts project leader and director of the UNSW Center for Ecosystem Science.
“We are already beginning to see the beginnings of a transformation in the landscape. The soil is starting to tip over, which provides great opportunities for many small invertebrates and traps water and nutrients.
“We think it’s part of how we can transform these deserts into what they were.”
Ecological Horizons’ Dr. John Read, a senior partner in the Wild Deserts project, says, “These energetic little diggers in the Wild Deserts are culturally, historically and ecologically important and will be great for restoring the desert.”
Wild Deserts scientists will monitor the animals on a daily basis using radio tracking devices to make sure they are adjusting well to their new environment.
“We have deliberately designed the Wild Deserts project to provide us with scientific monitoring opportunities to assess our management and the success of the species,” says Dr. Reece Pedler of UNSW, Wild Deserts project coordinator, in a sentence.
“We hope to establish talpero in other parts of the Wild Deserts site and ultimately in neighboring areas of Sturt National Park or beyond. We have already recorded the recruitment of pups that were bagged and other pups that were born in Wild Deserts. ”
Wild Deserts is part of a major New South Wales government initiative to protect threatened native mammals through the Reintroduction of Locally Extinct Mammals project and the Saving our Species initiative.
Next, the team plans to reintroduce other threatened mammals into the Wild Deserts exclusions, including western quolls, nest-stick rats, and golden bandicoots.
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