6 Sept 2021


Platypus are facing a silent extinction. Take action now to protect them and their habitat! 

As part of our mission to Regenerate Australia, WWF-Australia is working with UNSW’s Platypus Conservation Initiatives, Taronga Conservation Society Australia and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service to bring rewilding the platypus to life - a three-year project dedicated to restoring platypus populations in the Royal National Park near Sydney.

The platypus once thrived across the eastern Australian mainland and Tasmania. But bushfires, deforestation and urbanisation, drought, pollution and predation all threaten their survival. Now, this unique, egg-laying mammal has become locally extinct from the Royal National Park in Sydney...

WWF-Australia has launched rewilding the platypus to test whether we can rewild Australia’s favourite water-dwelling monotreme.

Our vision is for this remarkable Australian icon to thrive once more. For the next three years, our collaborative team of expert researchers, scientists, rangers and ecologists will survey for platypus in and around Australia’s oldest national park to confirm the population status and identify suitable reintroduction sites. Next, we’ll start looking at sites with high platypus populations and identifying potential source populations. If we can identify opportunities to restore platypus habitat along the way, we’ll aim to determine what can be done to improve ecosystem health. Once the extensive pre-translocation surveys have been assessed, we will then aim to rewild platypus into the park.

After this, our team will continue to monitor their progress to ensure the resettlement has been successful and safeguard their long-term recovery.

And it’s all thanks to our generous supporters that WWF-Australia will be able to carry out this life-saving work.

We chatted to Rob Brewster, WWF-Australia’s Rewilding Project Manager, to find out more about rewilding the platypus and how it will help us in our mission to Regenerate Australia.

Australian platypus in river
Australian platypus in river © Shutterstock / Martin Pelanek / WWF

Why is rewilding the platypus so important?

A big part of the project involves surveying, trapping and monitoring platypus. That isn’t easy, so we’re going to use all sorts of innovative monitoring systems including acoustic transmitters developed by UNSW’s Platypus Conservation Initiative to follow them wherever they go and investigate if they are breeding. The exciting thing is this will give us a lot of data which is really useful for the long-term future of the platypus. It can help us develop plans to restore their former habitat, where threats to their survival can be managed.

We can’t just conserve our ecosystems as they are. We need to actually rebuild them – and that means trying to understand how our ecosystems functioned before the arrival of a multitude of threats we’ve introduced over the past 200 or so years. We then need to address these threats head-on, and develop strategies to test how to restore those vital missing links that play a role in maintaining a diverse and healthy ecosystem.

That’s why rewilding the platypus is so important for Australia – it will return a species that not only represents one component of a diverse ecosystem, but it will also restore the role of platypus as an aquatic predator of stream invertebrates. This role might look small to us humans, but it is one that has been a part of Australia’s ecosystems for millions of years.

The project also allows us to test strategies to translocate platypus populations, which will help us determine when and how to intervene in the event of a disaster such as a catastrophic bushfire or prolonged drought. And that means more lives saved.

Platypus are facing a silent extinction. Take action now to protect them and their habitat! 

What are the biggest threats to the platypus right now?

Drought and bushfires can be devastating for the platypus and unfortunately, this is intensified by climate change. Water infrastructure is also a really big problem. When we build weirs and dams, we’re changing river flow, and the habitat where platypus build their burrows. Fishing gear and traps can also be devastating for the platypus. Then there are predators. Platypus often move overland between river systems, making them very vulnerable to foxes, cats and dogs.

What makes the platypus so important?

Many Australian animals are unusual in their own way. But the platypus is one of the most unique of all. They’re mammals that lay eggs and have a bill and flippers, which is an amazing evolutionary feat. But in the last 150 to 200 years, they’ve come under threat.

Sadly, they’re not the only animals we need to be very concerned about. Almost all Australian mammals weighing between 35 grams and five and a half kilograms are threatened with extinction. That’s petrifying.

The platypus is a priority species for healthy river systems. By ensuring a thriving ecosystem for the platypus, we’re looking to protect the future of many other wildlife that share its habitat or are vulnerable to the same threats.

How did WWF-Australia decide on the rewilding the platypus project?

The 2019-20 Australian bushfire crisis was intensified by the preceding drought conditions. This was catastrophic for platypus populations, drying up the water where they swim and hunt. We had to make emergency interventions and relocate affected platypus populations very quickly. Luckily, various national parks, agencies and university researchers all rolled up their sleeves and jumped in to help.

This tragedy made us realise that platypus populations were likely being threatened in lots of places that weren’t being monitored. Platypus are very solitary, shy mammals, so no one had really noticed that they’ve been gradually slipping into local extinction. We realised we needed to act quickly. The conservation status of the platypus was changed – from a common species to near threatened.

Australian platypus in river
© Lukas - stock.adobe.com

The fact that we don't know why they’ve dropped out in some places is what shocks me the most. We’re not sure if it’s just drought, habitat degradation, or a multitude of other reasons. And we have to unravel all of this to work out how to conserve the platypus.

So, WWF-Australia began talking to NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Taronga Conservation Society Australia, UNSW’s Platypus Conservation Initiative and ranger groups about testing a reintroduction of platypus back to ecosystems where their populations have become locally extinct. This will also help us develop really solid translocation strategies for the species and determine when we need to intervene to help them in a crisis.

How are you making sure the project is successful?

Collaboration is absolutely key and we have a wonderful team – Taronga Conservation Society, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, and the UNSW Platypus Conservation Initiative, all working together.

The team at UNSW live and breathe platypus – they’re the kind of partners WWF-Australia love working with. They truly have their heart and soul in the project and generate good science we can then apply to other areas.

We’re also working with local rangers to see whether they could co-design a River Guardian program for the regions where we reintroduce platypus populations. This will help us monitor the conditions where a platypus is spotted – like the weather or how many humans are around. All this information is part of the puzzle for how we can rewild the platypus, and we really hope the local community will be able to help develop that process in Sydney’s Royal National Park.

Why is it important we act now?

We’re at the right place at the right time to do this project now. We have a wealth of knowledge that we've learnt from moving platypus populations following the bushfires. We've identified a location where we think platypus need our support, and Taronga Conservation Society is currently constructing a zoo-based breeding centre for platypus in western New South Wales that can support reintroductions of platypus back to the wild. We need to use that momentum of what we learnt in the bushfires to propel us forward and bring back their populations to areas where they've diminished.

Currently, just 1% of Australians have seen a platypus in the wild. I’d love that to change. Australians in south eastern Australia should be able to sit near their local creek and see one.

So when you support rewilding the platypus, you’re not just investing in the protection of the platypus – you’re investing in the experience of going to the Royal National Park and seeing one for yourself.

Platypus are facing a silent extinction. Take action now to protect them and their habitat!