Conservationists in the Northern Territory have carried out a bold, week-long operation to help secure the future of one of Australia’s most endangered mammals, the Central Rock-rat. Over five nights in the last week of July, a joint team of ecologists from Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and the Northern Territory Government’s Flora and Fauna Division working in collaboration with Traditional Owners, trapped rock-rats from sites across Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park and airlifted them by helicopter to the safety of a large, feral-free, fenced area at AWC’s Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, where it is hoped they will thrive.
The Northern Territory’s Parks and Wildlife Commission has managed the Park in partnership with its Traditional Owners to ensure the Central Rock-rat’s survival and is working collaboratively with AWC to increase and diversify their population. Ongoing efforts in the Park include protecting the Central Rock-rat population from extreme fire events and feral cat predation.
The translocation required some high-level logistics involving a Jet Ranger helicopter, six vehicles and more than a dozen people working across five sites in some of the most precipitous terrain in Central Australia. In some cases, trapping teams and field equipment were ferried by helicopter into remote locations to establish trapping sites. Animals were collected from wild populations in the Chewings Range and Heavitree Range 60–85 kilometres (37-53 miles) west of Alice Springs.
Central Rock-rats are nocturnal, so small aluminium box traps were set at dusk, baited with an irresistible combination of peanut butter and oats. At daybreak, the ecologists returned to check the traps and collect their quarry. Rock-rats were bundled carefully into pet packs then flown by helicopter or transported by vehicle to Ormiston Gorge Ranger Station, where DNA samples were taken and additional information collected.
Mark Inkamala of Ntaria (Hermannsburg) said: “This is our traditional ancestral lands at Ormiston where we used to come as kids for swimming and fishing. We thought the rock-rat was extinct until rangers found it.”
From Ormiston Gorge, some of the rock-rats were transferred 185 kilometres (115 miles, 90 minutes by helicopter) directly to the top of Wardikinpirri Range, a 10-kilometre-long (6.2-mile) quartzite outcrop that sits within the 9,450-hectare (~23,400-acre) feral predator-free, fenced area at Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary. As the sun set, they were released. A total of 58 rock-rats were translocated to Newhaven.
“We identified release sites that provided suitable habitat; small rocky gorges with abundant rock-crevices close to country that’s been burnt within the past few years” noted Danae Moore, Wildlife Ecologist with Australian Wildlife Conservancy, who coordinated the translocation.
“It was an incredible moment – AWC has been working for more than a decade improving the ecological health of Newhaven, improving fire patterns, managing feral predators and building one of the largest introduced predator-free fenced areas. To think what this means for a species like the Central Rock-rat… it’s potentially the difference between survival and extinction.”
In addition to the Central Rock-rats released at Newhaven, 16 were taken to Alice Springs Desert Park, where they will become founders of a new captive breeding program that hopes to boost numbers for subsequent releases.
Tjuwanpa Ranger Kevin Malthouse was pleased to see the animals find a safer home. “They’re starting to take the rock-rats to Desert Park and Newhaven – good environments since they took out all the cats and foxes.”
“We’re really excited to be working with the Central Rock-rat and look forward to seeing the population here grow,” said Alice Springs Desert Park director Estelle Marshall. “Establishing a captive breeding program at the Desert Park will allow for developing the skills and knowledge to assist in the ongoing conservation of this endangered species.”
The Central Rock-rat is a species on the brink. Once found across a broad swathe of Central Australia, it has disappeared from over 95% of its pre-European distribution. After a sighting in 1960, it seemed to have disappeared and was considered likely extinct until a tiny population was rediscovered near Ormiston Gorge in 1996. Over the past two decades, the population has fluctuated in response to alternating periods of higher and lower rainfall, and in recent years the NT Government has been implementing a targeted baiting program to reduce feral cat numbers near known Central Rock-rat colonies. Recent favourable conditions provided a window of opportunity for collecting animals from the wild while numbers were on an upward trend.
The translocation to Newhaven, coupled with the captive breeding colony, will help to secure the conservation of the species. The Central Rock-rat has been identified as one of the species most urgently in need of protection within a cat- and fox-free site, and careful fire management is also critical to promote flushes of seed-bearing grasses and forbs. If the new population becomes established throughout the rocky ranges, it is predicted that Newhaven could support a population of around 800 Central Rock-rats in ideal conditions.
Australia’s arid zone is the global epicentre for mammal extinctions, with at least fifteen species historically present at Newhaven now thought to be locally extinct. By constructing one of the world’s largest feral predator-free areas, AWC is working to halt extinctions and restore at least 10 locally extinct or rare mammal species to the safe haven. Species previously reintroduced include the Mala, Red-tailed Phascogale, Brush-tailed Bettong, Greater Bilby and Burrowing Bettong, while further translocations are proposed for the Golden Bandicoot, Brushtail Possum, Numbat and Western Quoll in coming years.
Tjoritja/West MacDonnell National Park is jointly managed by Traditional Owners and the Parks and Wildlife Commission of the NT Government. Traditional Owners were closely consulted in advance of the translocation.
This crucial work is partially funded by the Australian Government, with $249,862 in grant funding for surveys of source populations, the establishment of the captive breeding program at Alice Springs Desert Park, and translocation to Newhaven. Disney Conservation Fund, Fondation Segré, and Oak Foundation have also generously contributed to our Newhaven translocation program.