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Little is known about the secretive nabarlek, one of Australia's smallest species of rock-wallaby. But it’s thought to be on the brink of extinction.
As nabarleks are difficult to distinguish from some other species, only specimens or faecal DNA can be used to ascertain their presence. In the western NT, a subspecies known only from one specimen, collected back in 1839, is now thought to be extinct. The Arnhem Land subspecies has declined markedly since European settlement with absences reported from sites where nabarleks were previously recorded. And in the Kimberley, a third subspecies was considered relatively widespread before WWF-led surveys in 2013 and 2015 found that it may be limited to just one offshore island. However now, even more recently, it has been discovered on another Kimberley island. In any case, the nabarlek is in dire straits. What makes studying – and protecting – the nabarlek so challenging is that it occurs in remote parts of the country. Add to this the fact that it’s very similar in appearance to the monjon and juvenile short-eared rock-wallaby, and you have one tricky research subject. Genetics or skull morphology are the only sure-fire ways to identify it. WWF helped to pioneer a new method for distinguishing these species and now we're funding the genetic analysis of museum specimens. The support of Lotterywest is enabling WWF-Australia to work in partnership with nine indigenous organisations to protect nabarlek populations.
What we're doing
Rarest mainland rock wallaby discovered
In 2017, Traditional Owners conducting scientific monitoring in the far north Kimberley made an exciting discovery when scats collected by Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s Uunguu Rangers were identified as being from nabarlek. This is the first confirmed nabarlek record on mainland WA since the mid-1970s. Before now, Kimberley nabarlek populations were thought to only survive on several offshore islands away from fire, feral animal and grazing threats.
WWF’s studies of Kimberley rock-wallabies have concluded that the diminutive nabarlek may be on the verge of extinction. The largest survey of rock-wallabies in the Kimberley's history was undertaken from 2013 -2015 and no evidence of the nabarlek was found on the mainland. Only one individual was found on a small offshore island. This was an alarming find given that the Kimberley is recognised as the last stronghold for Australian mammal species, with no recorded extinctions for more than 200 years.
WWF is now working with Traditional Owners and rock-wallaby experts to work out what has caused the dramatic drop in nabarlek numbers. We’ll continue to search in remaining unsurveyed areas with Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners, and employ sensor cameras and DNA technology in inaccessible country. We also plan to undertake detailed surveys of the last known nabarlek population on a remote Kimberley island and other adjacent, previously unsurveyed islands, to see if we can find remaining populations.
Why it matters
Prior to WWF's surveys, it was assumed that the nabarlek population in the Kimberley was large, widespread and stable. We were therefore horrified to discover that from more than 50 sites surveyed, nabarleks were only recorded on the one offshore island. A tragedy may be unfolding right before our eyes. If nabarleks are secreted within rocky outcrops and escarpments on the mainland, then we need to find them urgently. We need to assess what threats they face and address those threats without delay. If it has already disappeared from the mainland, the nabarlek's current IUCN and EPBC status must be updated to a higher level of risk of extinction, and the limited number of island animals must be given greater protection. The remote and relatively undeveloped Kimberley is thought to be a stronghold for native animals, with no extinctions recorded since European arrival. A significant decline in nabarlek numbers would challenge this theory and indicate that more needs to be done to protect this important region.
We are yet to learn exactly just what has brought the nabarlek to the brink of extinction, but changes to fire regimes since European settlement and predation by feral cats are at the top of the list. Habitat degradation due to weed incursions and competition for food and shelter from introduced herbivores, like cattle, have also been blamed. As populations shrink and become more fragmented, nabarleks are also thought to become more vulnerable to .