24 May 2019
BACK TO THE BUSH
By Darren Grover
Head of Living Ecosystems, WWF-Australia
It was cool and rain threatened the evening as I rumbled along a bush track in a four-wheel drive to a remote part of Booderee National Park, in Jervis Bay. But the weather couldn't dampen my spirits.
I'd been to the park a year before, when I was lucky enough to see 20 eastern quolls take their first steps on the Australian mainland in 50 years. There was no way I was going to miss this second reintroduction - of a further 40 animals.
Because this carnivorous marsupial - about the size of a small domestic cat and covered in a smattering of spots - is something of a trendsetter. If we can successfully re-establish a population of long-lost quolls, then it bodes well for other vulnerable and threatened species that have disappeared from their former range.
The quolls had all been bred in human care and flown in from two wildlife parks in Tasmania (Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary and Devils@Cradle), as well as a third population transported by road from Aussie Ark, on the NSW Central Coast. Forty purpose-built wooden crates and carry cases bearing the most precious of cargo.
Like the first historic release, this was a military-like operation, coordinated by Rewilding Australia and supported by Parks Australia, scientists from the Australian National University (ANU), the Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council, the Threatened Species Recovery Hub, Taronga Conservation Society and WWF-Australia.
There was a flurry of activity and excitement as each quoll was prepared for its new bush home. Vets from Taronga Zoo gave each animal a final health check, to make sure they were physically ready. A select few quolls also had radio collars fitted, so we can keep track of their movements.
Then, as darkness settled, the young quolls were released one by one. Some were keen to set off, and galloped into the bush; others cautiously took in their new surroundings before wandering into the night.
My heart was in my mouth with each release, wondering what challenges lay ahead and whether each animal would survive the first tough weeks, even raise young of their own.
Aged just 9-12 months, these eastern quolls are in their prime. They’re old enough to start reproducing - quolls live for just 4-5 years - and the Booderee rangers had gone to great lengths to ensure them every success, carrying out extensive feral cat and fox controls.
These introduced pests, along with human persecution and habitat loss, were responsible for wiping out eastern quolls on the mainland, where they had played an important role in the ecosystem. As well as spiders and insects, quolls have an appetite for rodents and rabbits. In their absence, these animals can thrive unchecked, threatening the delicate balance of nature.
The eastern quoll is a powerful reminder that all components in a landscape are interconnected. We can't just pull one thread and think a whole ecosystem won't unravel, causing untold damage.
That's why these translocations are so inspiring to me.
Much of my work as a conservationist is defensive - saving a last remaining patch of habitat or a species on the verge of extinction. I'm constantly on the back foot, reacting to a crisis.
But that night at Booderee was different. For once, we were on the front foot - returning a species to its rightful place in the landscape; giving it the chance to reclaim its habitat. It was like putting a lost piece back in a jigsaw puzzle.
The spirit of cooperation and goodwill from all involved in the eastern quoll reintroductions has been extraordinary and I'm extremely proud that WWF is playing its part. We've contributed important technical expertise and money to help fund the breeding facilities in Tasmania and the costly translocations themselves, with the generous help of our supporters.
Investment in the Tasmanian and Aussie Ark captive populations is vital because they have become critical quoll strongholds. Even on the island state, where the quolls are still reasonably common in the wild, they’re no longer safe. Since the devastating facial tumour disease has decimated Tasmanian devil populations, feral cat numbers have exploded, and quolls now face renewed threats. Establishing mainland quoll refuges is now an insurance policy for even the Tasmanian quolls.
Thankfully, the Booderee population is showing encouraging signs of success. We've lost a few of the first quolls reintroduced, but about 12-14 youngsters have been born already. Not all will survive - it is the wild, after all - but hopefully most will breed and help build numbers to healthy levels.
Recent rain at Booderee means there is an abundance of food and a reduced risk of bushfires in the coming months. Hopefully this second batch of quolls will have well and truly settled in by the time harsher summer conditions roll around again.
In the meantime, we'll be keeping a close eye on the newcomers. During the next few months, the Booderee rangers and ANU researchers will be out most days radio-tracking the collared quolls, getting an idea of where they’re travelling and what they’re doing.
We still have a lot to learn about these charismatic animals and how best to reintroduce them to their former habitat. Each release informs and guides the next.
I look forward to returning to Booderee myself later this year to see how these feisty little animals are faring. Fingers crossed, there will be a new generation of eastern quolls roaming the park by then.
The Eastern quoll reintroduction project is a collaboration between Parks Australia, The Australian National University (ANU), the National Environmental Science Program Threatened Species Recovery Hub, Wreck Bay Aboriginal Community Council (WBACC), with support from Devils@Cradle, Trowunna Wildlife Sanctuary and Aussie Ark wildlife sanctuary.