Mala’s flight to safety could stave off ex­tinc­tion

The Weekend Australian - - THE NATION - PAIGE TAYLOR

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

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