Mala’s flight to safety could stave off extinction
Some of the world’s last surviving mala, tiny wallabies that skilfully evade predators by hiding in spinifex, have been flown out of a bald patch of national park in an emergency operation in the Northern Territory.
Eight of the soft-haired wallabies — four females carrying young and four adult males — are thought to be the last of a group of 200 that struggled and plunged in number after a fire ripped through their home at Wattarka National Park in 2013. This week they were shifted to safety in a 150ha enclosed spinifex plain northwest of Alice Springs where their population is expected to ultimately grow to 18,000 as the boundary fences expand to give refuge to 11 species of endangered native mammals, some of them extinct in the wild.
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s Newhaven sanctuary is the world’s biggest feral cat eradi- cation project, scheduled to create a 70,000ha predator-proof enclosure by 2021. Almost 200 kilometres of electrified fence will separate feral cats from the marsupials they have pushed to the edge of extinction.
The non-profit Australian Wildlife Conservancy has for years been buying vast tracts of the bush and fencing out feral cats that kill between five and seven animals each night. The first stage of the AWC’s bold vision for Newhaven — funded largely by dona- tions — is a 10,000ha enclosure that will be cleared of cats and foxes and take its first delivery of native animals in 2019. But the organisation had to work fast with Warlpiri rangers over the past four weeks to create an emergency mini sanctuary for the mala exposed to predators at Wattarka, an hour away by plane. The NT government proposed the relocation after recent surveys showed the population had fallen to fewer than 20 animals and could become extinct over summer.
The wallabies were fenced there too — foxes and cats could not reach them — and though the fire did not kill them they had limited food after the blaze and were thought to be vulnerable to birds of prey. Adult mala weigh about 1.3kg; without the cover of spinifex, wedge-tail eagles can spot them more easily.
Mala have been extinct in the wild since a population in the Tanami Desert died out in 1991. There are just 420 left in enclosures on mainland Australia.
Australian Wildlife Conservancy chief executive Atticus Fleming said it was a wonderful moment to see mala return to Warlpiri Luritja country where they were once plentiful, and where they are culturally significant to Aboriginal people.
Over two nights, 12 ecologists trapped the mala at the fire-damaged national park, flew with them to Newhaven and, working alongside Warlpiri rangers at Newhaven, released them on Wednesday night.
Warlpiri ranger Duncan Jungala Gallagher and Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary manager Josef Schofield by the fence; a mala in the sanctuary, top right; arriving at the sanctuary