7 Feb 2022


A wombat subspecies unique to Bass Strait could be the first animal returned under an innovative vision to “rewild” a whole island.

The project is being led by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia in collaboration with The University of Tasmania.

It’s hoped at least six species wiped out by invasive predators, land clearing and catastrophic bushfires can be re-established on the Aboriginal-owned, 8230 hectare lungtalanana (formerly Clarke Island) in Bass Strait.

Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre spokesperson Andry Sculthorpe said lungtalanana may look ruggedly beautiful but Indigenous visitors sense the land isn’t healthy.

“Country is holistic. It's the living things, non-living things, spiritual beliefs and the way all those things intertwine. Returning animals that belong here will help lungtalanana to heal,” he said.

The Bass Strait Island wombat is a crucial ecosystem engineer. Its digging increases nutrient turnover and water penetration, spreads seeds and fungal spores, and its burrows provide safe havens for other species, particularly during fires.

Along with the Bass Strait Island wombat, the Bennett's wallaby and the short-beaked echidna could be the first species released. Just as critical as the animals is the return of cultural burning.

“Recent studies on lungtalanana have shown Aboriginal people managed this land with fire for at least 41,000 years,” said Mr Sculthorpe.

“Cultural burning reduced fuel loads. The loss of these practices has been devastating contributing to the 2014 wildfire which burnt more than 80% of the island."

“That has led to the island being in a state of regrowth which is unbalanced with a proliferation of woody species."

“Cultural burning will recreate a diversity of vegetation communities and ages, providing habitat and food for the animals we return, and reducing the severity of any future wildfires. Country needs people and it needs animals too,” Mr Sculthorpe said.

“We’re not returning just a single species to a small patch of habitat, we want to rewild the entire island ecosystem,” said Darren Grover, Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes, WWF-Australia.

“Animals such as the Bass Strait Island wombat, Bennett's wallaby, and short-beaked echidna will contribute to a well-functioning island ecosystem."

“This is also about a cultural connection. It's about Tasmanian Aboriginal people getting back onto their lands and returning the wildlife which has so much cultural importance for them. So it's an exciting project and WWF is proud to be involved."

“Success here will provide a stepping-stone to rewilding other, larger islands. We can then take lessons learnt to the mainland."

“This is a $1.5 million project. WWF will get the ball rolling with a $339,000 contribution in a signal that rewilding has become a prominent part of our Regenerate Australia program,” he said.

Mr Sculthorpe said the rewilding project would create opportunities for young Aboriginal people to get involved in an interesting area of science and caring for Country.

Five young Indigenous rangers who recently visited lungtalanana are excited by the prospect of restoring the island and spoke about how strengthening their connection to Country enriches their lives.

“Everything plays its own part in the ecosystem so putting animals like wombats, potoroos, and wallabies back on the island would be a great thing to do. It’s healing Country and looking after Aboriginal land,” said David Lowery.

“This is where my ancestors are from. I'm back here on the same Country as they walked thousands of years ago. It means so much to bring back the same practices they carried out for thousands of years,” said Kulai Sculthorpe.

“Becoming a Pakana ranger changed my life in a big way. Being around community gave me support and encouragement and I haven’t looked back,” said Brenton Brown.

“When I'm back home in the city it’s easy to feel stressed about things. When I’m out in Country it’s different. I get to do cultural stuff, fix the landscape and help animals. I feel really good,” said Baden Maynard.

“A lot of the Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) have died out. We hope to collect and germinate seeds of various plant species and recreate biodiversity. Our tussock grasses have evolved to benefit from fire. Cultural burning will put nitrogen back into the soil, improve the grasslands and provide food for returned animals,” said Brendan Lowery.

About Regenerate Australia

Regenerate Australia is the largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration programs in Australia’s history. Launched by WWF-Australia in October 2020, the multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019-2020 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of changing climate. Find out more at Regenerate Australia.