News from the Field, Press Release

A gift of gold: locally-extinct bandicoot returns to Australia’s Red Centre

21 Aug. 2023
Tom Sayers/AWC

After an extended absence from Australia’s arid interior, the Golden Bandicoot has returned to Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s (AWC) Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, on Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja Country in the Red Centre.

In a historic event, the Ngarinyin People, the Traditional Custodians of Wilinggin Country in the Kimberley, WA, including AWC’s Charnley River – Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary, have gifted a founding population of the vulnerable bandicoots to Newhaven’s mammal restoration project. The Traditional Custodians of Watakinpirri Country —a rugged mountain range and its surrounding sandplains on Newhaven, where the Golden Bandicoots were released—welcomed the species’ return.

 

The Golden Bandicoot used to be one of the most common small mammals in the arid zone, where it was an important food item for First Nations Peoples. The species was once found across mainland Australia but is now listed as ‘threatened’ with a highly fragmented distribution. Primarily found on offshore islands of WA and the NT, the north-west Kimberley is host to the only remaining natural mainland population. The decline from 95% of its former range is believed to be due to predation by feral cats and foxes and altered fire regimes after colonisation.

The 40 Golden Bandicoots reintroduced to Newhaven this week, were sourced from AWC’s Charnley River-Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary, in a collective project with Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation (WAC) Rangers. The bandicoots, carefully transported in pet packs, were escorted approximately 1,000 kilometres from the Kimberley to Central Australia by two WAC Darran.gu Wulagura (Strong Women) Rangers, Zaharny Charles and Nerelle Umbagai, as well as AWC ecologists, Dr Karen Young and Samantha Mulvena. Up to 60 additional Golden Bandicoots will be sourced from Barrow Island in WA and released at Newhaven later this month.

The bandicoots and their chaperones were greeted upon arrival by the Newhaven conservation team, including the Newhaven Warlpiri Rangers and Traditional Custodian Douglas Tjupurrula Dixon who welcomed their guests, including Yondi Nulgit (Ngarinyin Traditional Owner) and Rachel Treacy (Darran.gu Wulagura Ranger Coordinator) from the Kimberley.

Radio transmitting tracking device being fitted to a Golden Bandicoot by AWC field ecologists. Brad Leue/AWC
Tiny trackers. Radio transmitting tracking device being fitted to a Golden Bandicoot by AWC field ecologists.

AWC ecologists conducted health checks on the Golden Bandicoots and attached VHF radio collars or tail-mounted tags to 20 individuals to monitor their movements and health for up to four weeks. The bandicoots were then released inside Newhaven’s 9,450-hectare feral predator-free fenced area, where they became the seventh species reintroduced to the safe haven. The reintroduction aims to improve the conservation outlook for the threatened bandicoot by establishing a new, genetically diverse population in the arid zone, a major part of the former distribution of the species.

“My name is April Napaljarri Spencer, I’m Warlpiri, I come from Newhaven. I’ve come here and I’m really happy. These young people can look after and take on this country, parents can bring their children, so children can learn from this place,” said April.

“Those animals that they brought today, the bandicoots from the Kimberley – we’re really happy about that. Two women brought them to show us, and we will show them our country where these animals are coming to.

“These animals are really good for us and the country.”

Warlpiri Traditional Custodian Douglas Tjupurrula Dixon And His Daughter Rikaela Releasing A Golden Bandicoot. Brad Leue/AWC
Welcome home. Warlpiri Traditional Custodian Douglas Tjupurrula Dixon and his daughter Rikaela releasing a Golden Bandicoot.

Dr John Kanowski, AWC Chief Science Officer celebrated the return of the bandicoots to Central Australia.

“The reintroduction will help secure the long-term future of the species. The Golden Bandicoot is one of many small mammals that have been extirpated from the region due to predation by cats and foxes and altered fire regimes,” said Dr Kanowski. “As ecosystem engineers, Golden Bandicoots play an important ecological role – turning over soil, which increases the rate of leaf litter decomposition, soil production and nutrient cycling.”

“This has been a long-awaited reintroduction that required years of planning and research to successfully achieve,” Dr Kanowski explained. “Our ecologists and partners have spent many hours in the field developing an identification process for the Golden Bandicoot while also determining their range and abundance.”

Wilinggin Darran.gu Wulagura Ranger, Zarharny Charles, Releases A Golden Bandicoot Brad Leue/AWC
A gift of gold. Wilinggin Darran.gu Wulagura Ranger, Zarharny Charles, releases a Golden Bandicoot.


The Cinderella Analysis

In 2016, AWC earmarked the Golden Bandicoot for reintroduction to Newhaven and identified the Kimberley’s Artesian Range population as a potential source for the translocation, subject to relevant approvals and collaboration with the Traditional Owners. However, little was known about the distribution and abundance of the Golden Bandicoot in the Kimberley and ecologists were unable to distinguish the bandicoot from its near-identical relative the Northern Brown Bandicoot, which co-exist in some areas of the Kimberley.

“We had confirmed detections of a few Golden Bandicoots in the Artesian Range, but we didn’t know their full distribution in the region, how many there were, and had no definitive way to tell them apart from the Northern Brown in the field,” said Dr Skye Cameron, AWC Regional Ecologist in the Kimberley. “On camera and even in the hand, the two species have been challenging to confidently identify, as juvenile Northern Brown Bandicoots can be very similar to adult Goldens, and we have spent the last several years crunching the data to validate a method for in-field Identification.

A recaptured Golden Bandicoot with ear tag. Tom Sayers/AWC
A recaptured Golden Bandicoot with ear tag.

“Initially, we learned that their third and fourth molars were different, working with bandicoot experts from the WA museum, but the dental route would have had us inspecting the mouths of bandicoots for translocation, and this wasn’t a practical technique. After collecting morphological data on more than 300 bandicoots, and validating the species identification using genetic analysis, we now know that the Golden Bandicoots have a shorter foot than the Northern Brown, for a given weight, making in-field species identification easy and reliable.

“As we continued monitoring both species of bandicoot across the Kimberley, the team now have an eye for the slight differences in how the fur feels and looks, and how Northern Browns of similar size snouts are a little longer and pointier than that of the Golden Bandicoot.”

With a simple method developed to identify the Golden Bandicoot (nicknamed the Cinderella Analysis), and approvals from Traditional Owners, 17 AWC ecologists and WAC Darran.gu Wulagura Rangers helicoptered into remote campsites across the Artesian Range, on Wilinggin Country to undertake a 10-day population survey to gain an accurate assessment of population size, from the area marked to be the source population for this translocation. Sixty traps, made up of cages and Elliott Traps, were laid out per site, catching a total of 735 animals including 94 individual Golden Bandicoots. Genetic analysis showed that AWC’s field identification was 100% correct. From this survey, the team were able to estimate the Artesian Range population to be around 6,000 individuals, well above what was expected.

“The Artesian Range is healthy and to see them flourishing in the landscape was heartwarming,” said WAC’s Rachel Treacy, Ngarinyin Woman and Darran.gu Wulagura Ranger Coordinator.

Newhaven’s mammal restoration project is made possible thanks to generous funding from Fondation Segré, Oak Foundation, as well as AWC donors from across the world.

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