Placing virtually extinct species with feral cats in a fenced reserve sounds like a recipe for disaster.
But, as Dr Katherine Tuft, General Manager of environmental group Arid Recovery explained “The controlled process is really designed to fast track the natural selection process by enhancing the endangered species’ survival skills.”
The 123 square kilometre reserve, six hours drive from Adelaide and adjacent to BHP’s Olympic Dam project, is a world-class arid zone scientific reference site.
It was founded in 1997 by BHP employee John Read and his wife, Katherine Moseby.
Since then, with the financial support of BHP, the 1.8m high, 80 kilometre long wire fence has been built and maintained to create a safe haven for mainland-extinct animals.
These include the Greater Bilby and the Burrowing Bettong, a member of the kangaroo family.
“Step one was to remove the feral cats, foxes and rabbits from the reserve,” she said.
“But you can’t build a fence across the whole country and there are a lot of areas where these introduced predators exist.
“So a huge part of what we do is research and development of techniques to get some of the animals thriving outside of the fenced area.”
Until the project began, three of the four species protected by the fence did not exist on mainland Australia.
As a result, the endangered species don’t have the behaviours needed to avoid introduced predators, such as cats, foxes and rabbits - a weakness referred to as ‘prey naivety’.
The solution to overcoming prey naivety may seem harsh, but is proving effective.
“What we do is put a small number of predators like the desexed cats into the reserve to expose the protected species to the predator.
“This way, without being overwhelmed by numbers, they learn about the habits of their predators.”
“So far they are showing behavioural change such as increased wariness in looking out for predators, and then running away quicker, which is pretty exciting,” she said.
By trying to fast-track natural selection, the Arid Recovery team are trying to provide the animals with the smarts to survive outside the fence.
Thanks to the reserve, there are now eight thousand Burrowing Bettong and more than a thousand of both the Greater Bilby and Western Barred Bandicoot, along with five hundred Greater stick-nest rats.
It’s a bit like the animal version of Rocky as we train these nearly extinct creatures to fight back against a foe that was introduced around 200 years ago.
“They understandably failed the first battle but we are trying to train them up for the next one,” she said.
Starting in 2018 this ‘survival of the fittest’ training will be extended with the introduction of a native predator, the Western Quoll.
A small spotted carnivore, the Western Quoll used to exist cross 70% of the mainland but today is only found in a small part of Western Australia.
Dr Tuft said, “We are trying to give the creatures an edge and some extra strength so they can eventually make it outside the wire.”