SEARCHING FOR A PHANTOM IN THE KIMBERLEY
Living in the Kimberley for over four years, working in areas like this, believe me, I know I’m one lucky scientist. Not only is the Kimberley spectacular and beautiful, it’s the only bio-region of Australia not to feel the harsh touch of mammal extinction since European arrival. Living alongside the 65 species of bird, frog, snake and mammal only found here are other species which have either disappeared, or are in serious decline, across the rest of Australia including the golden bandicoot, greater bilby, and Gouldian finch. Strange as it seems this fact implies that, despite the pressures of feral animals, climate change, altered fire regimes and industrialisation, the Kimberley is near pristine.
But WWF’s research in the Kimberley is revealing that not everything is as it should be. One species, the , a diminutive rock-wallaby that lives in the caves and crevices of the Kimberley escarpment, may have dropped off the ledge without anyone knowing.
Alarm bells rang in the Broome WWF office after we failed to find any evidence of nabarlek on the Kimberley mainland during detailed rock-wallaby monitoring in 2013. We decided we needed to have a closer look in the remote northwest of the region, an area rarely visited, and began our search by talking to the Aboriginal elders who spoke for this country.
Sitting, drinking cups of tea in Mowanjum, a little community outside of Derby, we met with half a dozen of the remaining Nyarinyin elders. Pansy, an elderly lady who grew up in the northwest Kimberley as a little girl, laughed when we showed pictures of the nabarlek rock-wallaby, saying, “Yes, I know that one. We call that one juwulya. That’s the little one that bounces along with its tail in the air”. Our ears prick up immediately, as this is believed to be one of the strange characteristics of our little-known rock-wallaby. The Nyarinyin elders then reflected on whether they had seen juwulya in recent years. After discussing among themselves, they tell us that they hadn’t seen one lately and that we should go and have a look. A plan is then hatched among us - we will work with the Wungurr Rangers and our scientists to look for nabarlek in and around the Prince Regent Nature Reserve.
After months of planning, including sourcing funding from WWF supporters to undertake this research, we were ready to go with the best combination of local knowledge and western technology available. Twelve people clambered into four landcruisers covered in swags, pots, pans and food and drove for two days northeast of Derby to get to our base camp. Our trip was relatively uneventful, not even a flat tyre, but the slow going took its toll - 60 kilometres in six hours driving on the second day was gruelling as we drove along tracks rarely used. The hardest part of the trip was the infamous ‘Magpie Jump Up’, where we had to drive up a cliff and then down an empty creek to continue the journey.
Finally we arrived at Baschsten Camp in the tank like landcruisers in one piece and with only a few loose fittings. Once tents were pitched and the campfire lit, our field work started immediately. A helicopter arrived early the next morning bringing an additional three elders and, after a smoking ceremony to welcome us to country, we split into two teams to cover as much country as possible. One team, comprising a WWF scientist, a Wungurr Ranger and a Nyarinyin elder who spoke for country, visited more than 20 sites in three days of flying round the Prince Regent Nature Reserve.
The second team did it harder - by foot - and surveyed an additional eight sites in these three days. Surveying sites in the end of the dry season was sweaty work but we were rewarded by collecting plenty of rock-wallaby scats (droppings) that we could sample for DNA. We were also able to leave more than 20 sensor cameras on country to capture images of animals scuttling past.
We’re now playing the waiting game - scientists are undertaking DNA analysis and assessing the sensor camera images. If populations of nabarlek are found, we’ll head out this year and actively protect these areas from wildfire and the scourges of feral cats, which the elders and scientists agree are likely to cause the sudden decline of this species. It’s scary to think there are estimated to be 100,000 cats in the Kimberley preying on millions of native animals per year.
We will work with the Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers to address these threats and make sure that species like the nabarlek are not only conserved but recover from the decline they have faced. This work could not be done without your support – thank you. I’d also like to thank the Wilinggen Traditional Owners and Wungurr Rangers, the Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council for supporting this project.