Wildlife Matters

A joey in the pouch

08 May. 2024
Wayne Lawler/AWC

New recruits for the endangered Northern Bettong

By Felicity L’Hotellier, AWC Senior Field Ecologist

The sun had not long set on our first night at camp, in Far North Queensland’s Danbulla National Park. A brush-tailed, truffle-loving resident hopped out from the grassy understorey of its tropical home to inspect the sudden appearance of tarps, tents and tuckerboxes. It was my first (and in the casual form it took place, unexpected) encounter with a Northern Bettong. We were there to survey the population, in the last stronghold of the species, as part of a grand plan to reintroduce Northern Bettongs to Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s (AWC) Mt Zero–Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary.

Fast-forward three years. Project planning, consultation, design and approvals were behind us. Northern Australia’s first feral predator-free exclosure had been constructed. Almost two decades of landscape restoration through effective land management at the sanctuary, readying the land for the return of a species absent for 20 years, was about to come to fruition.

At the Danbulla National Park trapping site, a devoted team (including Traditional Owners from across Northern Bettong country, AWC personnel, members of the Northern Bettong Recovery Team, Department of Environment, Science and Innovation staff, and volunteers) banded together over several long nights to capture what were soon to be the founding animals of a new population. Traps were set and checked, captured bettongs were assessed, and selected individuals were carefully transported to our temporary translocation HQ throughout the night. Safely stowed in pet packs and loaded into air-conditioned vans, 49 Northern Bettongs made the journey to their new home.

Flic (middle), pictured releasing a Northern Bettong with mum Lavina and daughter Billie. Brad Leue/AWC
Felicity (middle), pictured releasing a Northern Bettong with mum Lavina and daughter Billie.

If that first encounter with a Northern Bettong was scored into my mind, it was the release of those founding bettongs to Mt Zero–Taravale that is scored into my heart. As cotton bags were opened and bettongs cautiously hopped off into the darkness, this was a time shared and celebrated; with the families of Gugu Badhun Traditional Owners, whose ancestors cared for and shared this same landscape with Northern Bettongs throughout history past, and with my own family alongside me. And with many others who had dedicated immeasurable effort to securing the future of a species which, without intervention, was at very real risk of extinction.

The coming months were a mixture of excitement and anticipation. With a proven history of reintroduction success, we were confident that the most recent in AWC’s reintroduction program would be a triumph – but this was the first major project of its kind for the species. How would the bettongs fare? A post-release monitoring program, combining intensive radio-tracking and both cage- and camera-trapping surveys into the future, was implemented to answer that very question.

For three months, we’d undertaken daily monitoring of 18 founders fitted with collar-mounted radio-trackers. Early indicators pointed to a fantastic outcome. While trapping to remove collars, we were greeted with even more success; captured animals were in good condition, and most of the females caught had joeys in their pouches – from furless jellybeans through to velvet-covered miniatures. But it was one capture that was the most exciting of all. Approaching the trap, it was clear that this animal was special, and on assessment it became evident that the young male which had found its way into our trap (lured by the irresistible scent of a truffle-infused bait ball) was the population’s first new recruit! Having been translocated as a joey in its mother’s pouch, it was now part of the independent population! The cool night air was warmed with celebration.

A Northern Bettong joey is a velvet-covered miniature of an adult. Joeys and new recruits at Mt Zero–Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary in North Queensland indicate we are on our way to re-establishing a secure population of Northern Bettongs here. Mel Christi/AWC
A Northern Bettong joey is a velvet-covered miniature of an adult. Joeys and new recruits at Mt Zero–Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary in North Queensland indicate we are on our way to re-establishing a secure population of Northern Bettongs here.

Similarly positive results were recorded three months later; this time, all females captured were carrying young – even more impressive given we were at the end of North Queensland’s dry season, when resources would have been at their most lean. One female was carrying a joey on the verge of leaving its mother’s pouch to carve a destiny of its own in the big, wide, feral predator-free world. Checking records from three months earlier, that same female had been carrying a very small young. With a pouch life of around 100 days, it is likely that this was the same joey that the trapping team had encountered those few months earlier.

While the newest Northern Bettong population is still in its establishment phase, and there is still much work to be done to secure the future of the species across its broader range (grave concerns are held for a much smaller remnant population located on the Carbine Tablelands), results to date indicate we are on our way to achieving the reintroduction project’s aim; the re-establishment of a secure population of Northern Bettongs at Mt Zero-Taravale.

 

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