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Locally-extinct Woylies return to the Northern Territory

They’re small, they’re cute and they’re back! Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) celebrated 30 years of effective conservation work this week by making history, with the successful reintroduction of Woylies or Brush-tailed Bettongs to the Northern Territory where they have been locally extinct for over 60 years.

After 12 months of careful planning and paperwork, 44 Woylies were flown from Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in the WA Wheatbelt region over two nights starting Monday, the evening of AWC’s 30th anniversary, and Tuesday. The NT’s special new residents were made up of 22 males and 22 females – all females were carrying pouch young, giving the population an extra boost.

Two small charter planes flew the Woylies to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary north-west of Alice Springs where a team of staff and volunteers quickly performed health checks and recorded their measurements before releasing them into a 9,450-hectare feral predator-free area. Some of the Woylies were also fitted with VHF tracking collars, which will enable AWC ecologists to monitor their movements as they settle into their new home over the coming weeks.

Although once widespread across the NT, Woylies are thought to have disappeared from Central Australia in the early 1960s. In the arid zone, they started to decline after European settlement, survived the establishment of feral cats, but ultimately disappeared once red foxes became established. Their return this week will safeguard the future of the nationally endangered species and ensure genetic diversity among future generations.

Kirsten Skinner, AWC Wildlife Ecologist, welcomed the Woylies back to the NT, saying that although the reintroduction was logistically and physically demanding, it was well worth the effort to see the species back in their former range.

“It is a huge milestone for AWC and a thrill for the team at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary to have such an extraordinary opportunity to make history and reintroduce a locally extinct species back into the ecosystem,” Kirsten said.

“Woylies are incredible ecosystem engineers… each individual has the ability to move around six tons of dirt every year which promotes soil turnover and germination of seeds. We look forward to seeing how their return will affect the ecosystem after an absence of over 60 years.”

Following a well-deserved night off, AWC ecologists will closely monitor the Woylies to ensure their successfully integration at the sanctuary. Tracking collars and camera traps will be used for surveillance. Kirsten hopes to see individuals adapt to their new environment quickly and begin breeding to deliver the first generation of locally bred Woylies in over a century.

‘Woylie’ is the widely adopted Noongar name given to this species in in south-western Australia, while the local Warlpiri name in Central Australia is ‘pututjurru’. Bettongs are small marsupials related to kangaroos and wallabies, found only in Australia. They once inhabited a wide range of habitats across Australia but have been exterminated from most of their historic range due to predation by feral cats and foxes. Remnant populations of Woylies cling on in south-west Western Australia, but wild Woylies now number fewer than 15,000 individuals.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy protects almost 10 per cent of the world’s remaining Woylie population within feral predator-free fenced areas at Karakamia Wildlife Sanctuary and Mt Gibson Wildlife Sanctuary in WA, Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuary in SA and now Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary in the NT. A further reintroduction is planned for Mallee Cliffs National Park in NSW later in 2021.

Australian Wildlife Conservancy is undertaking Australia’s most ambitious mammal reintroduction program and it has created the largest network of feral-free safe havens across Australia.

For more information on Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s work including its national reintroduction program, click here.

Picture: Woylies translocated to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. Credit: Brad Leue-AWC

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