28 Sept 2021


“Our past is our future. So, you've got to look at the past to move forward.” - Quenten Agius (Traditional Owner, Adjahdura/Narungga and Ngadjuri Elder)

It’s dusk on Guuranda, the Traditional name for Yorke Peninsula. Quenten Agius (Traditional Owner, Adjahdura/Narungga and Ngadjuri Elder) speaks emotionally about what may seem like a simple act of conservation – releasing a group of bettongs back into the wild. But for the Narungga land and people, it means so much more.

This release at Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park marks a milestone in a healing journey. The bettongs not only have the power to physically heal the land, but they also hold great cultural significance to the Narungga People.

This tiny hopping marsupial hasn’t been seen on Guuranda for generations. But thanks to the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board, Australian Government’s National Landcare Program, Traditional Custodians, the Narungga People, National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia and WWF-Australia, 40 healthy bettongs have been released into the wild. This is a hugely significant ecological and cultural milestone, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

What is a bettong?

Brush-tailed bettongs aren’t the most well-known of Australian animals but the challenges they face shouldn’t be ignored. Weighing between 1 and 2 kilograms, they have many natural and introduced predators. Unfortunately, various species of bettong are considered either extinct, critically endangered or near threatened.

Many Australians are now learning what First Peoples always understood. Bettongs are incredible engineers and vital to the ecosystems of the areas they naturally inhabit.

The brush-tailed bettong was once found across 60% of the Australian mainland. Now it’s only found in small areas of Western Australia like the Upper Warren region, two islands off South Australia and a handful of fenced sanctuaries.

Because bettongs are energetic gardeners who turn over truckloads of soil each year in search of underground fungi, they:

  • improve water infiltration
  • encourage nutrient cycling
  • create native plant growth

As the bettong moves throughout its habitat, it also spreads seeds and fungal spores – literally planting the seeds for new growth.

Without the contribution of the bettong on Guuranda Country, the ecosystem is struggling. Some plants have disappeared, and the character and condition of the landscape has changed.

Marna Bangarra is turning this tale around. Firstly, through addressing their two main threats: habitat loss and introduced predators. And secondly, with a radical rewilding goal unlike anything the area has ever seen before.

Marna Banggara team Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park for the bettong release
Marna Banggara team Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park for the bettong release © WWF-Australia / Juansimage.com

Marna Banggara

Marna Banggara = Healthy Country / Prosperous Country

The Marna Bangarra rewilding project aims to bring together a range of partners – local landholders, farmers, the Narungga Traditional Owners, small businesses, WWF-Australia, NGOs and government agencies – to rewild Yorke Peninsula's spectacular landscape.

Marna Banggara is from the Narungga language. Marna meaning ‘healthy or prosperous’ and banggara meaning ‘Country’.

This ambitious project includes a 25 kilometre long, 1.8 metre high fence to support predator control in the project area. The fence and rewilding program are working to return the land to what it once was.

“I see it as an opportunity for the Narungga People to see the natural fauna being reintroduced. Going back to what was here prior to colonisation. It's a really exciting project to see that we're stepping into the future, but ultimately we're also stepping back to what was,” Garry Goldsmith – Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation Business Manager

Adjahdura/Narungga and Ngadjuri Elder Quentin Aegis and Garry Goldsmith – Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation Business Manager performing a smoking ceremony to mark the bettong release at Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park
© WWF-Australia / Ninti Media

The Narungga land

The ecological impact of this project will be unprecedented. It aims to develop a safe haven for some of Australia’s most vulnerable animals, as well as regenerate the bushland and support the local economy.

But more than that, it is structured on a traditional way of life by using the Narungga People’s deep knowledge and belief system of the land to navigate the way.

“We are ecological trailblazers,” says Goldsmith, “We have always been able to look at what our natural environment provides, and only utilise what we need. The bettongs play a really important part, and their reintroduction brings back the environment to what it once was.”

That environment sustained the Narungga People for generations. And because the rewilding project is advised by their cultural and environmental ways, it has the power to help mend more than just the local ecosystem.

Doug Milera, Chairperson of the Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park Co-Management Board said, “We want to build strong working relationships between Park Management, Narungga and the wider community to protect and preserve the Narungga culture and history as well as the future of the Park. Reintroducing bettongs after so many years absence is an important and emotional milestone, our native flora and fauna need to be cared for across our Country.”

Adjahdura/Narungga and Ngadjuri Elder Quentin Aegis and his grandson performing a smoking ceremony to mark the bettong release at Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park
© WWF-Australia / Ninti Media

Releasing the bettong

Date of release: 17 August

Dhilba Guuranda-Innes National Park

Quenten Agius: (Traditional Owner, Adjahdura / Narungga and Ngadjuri Elder) oversees a smoking ceremony led by his grandson.

A group of 40 carefully selected bettongs are released onto Narrungga Country. It’s dusk, the perfect time for a nocturnal creature to explore its new habitat.

This release has been years in the making. In preparation, the bettongs were trapped from an abundant population on Wedge Island, South Australia and health checks showed they were fit and healthy, with many carrying pouch young. The 40 successful candidates were flown to Yorke Peninsula.

Agius’s grandson is leading a smoking ceremony – chosen because he’s “a little fella” just like the bettongs. The ceremony is an opportunity to continue traditions, keeping the grandkids connected to 'old peoples' way.

As the bettongs are released, they sing about this important creature. It’s been a long time since those songs have been sung here, and this marks the beginning of a new era. One that’s moving the land back to where it once was.

“It's just going to be a happy thing for us to see them get released today. Cause then we're going to sing a new songline that we never sang for a while. For that animal has come back and so’s his songline. We sing so that animals a little comfortable in the Country and it make us, here in the heart real happy,” says Agius.

marna-banggara-release-1000px © WWF-Australia / Ninti Media

What's next for Marna Banggara

Over the next 20 years, Marna Bangarra aims to reintroduce three more native species that have become locally extinct on Yorke Peninsula: the southern brown bandicoot, red-tailed phascogale and western quoll.

But for now, we will focus on the bettong. A tiny creature that has the potential to reinvigorate the land. Clearing twigs, turning soil and planting seeds as it goes. It’s a lot of pressure, but lasting and meaningful change is on the way for the Narungga. These 40 bettongs will help to heal both Country and the Traditional Owner’s connections to it.

Visit the Marna Bangarra project to learn more about the Narungga Land and the project’s partners.

The Marna Banggara project is jointly funded through the Northern and Yorke Landscape Board, the Australian Government’s National Landcare Program, the South Australian Department for Environment and Water, WWF-Australia and Foundation for National Parks & Wildlife.

Other partners actively involved in developing and delivering the project include Regional Development Australia, South Australian Tourism Commission, Zoos SA, FAUNA Research Alliance, BirdLife Australia, Nature Conservation Society of SA, Narungga Nation Aboriginal Corporation, Primary Producers SA, Primary Industries and Regions SA, Conservation Volunteers Australia, Legatus Group, Yorke Peninsula Council, Yorke Peninsula Tourism and Scientific Expedition Group.