IT wasn’t long ago that many third-generation farmers on the West Australian wheatbelt had never heard of the brush-tailed bettong, more commonly known as a woylie.
Today, they are hoping this critically endangered, wallaby-like marsupial may hold the key to getting passing tourists to stop overnight and put much-needed revenue back into withering rural towns.
Community sanctuaries in which native animal populations can recover behind feral-animal-proof fences are a growing trend in conservation and helping to pull some of Australia’s most endangered species back from the brink of extinction.
It is a task made urgent by the explosion of feral cats, which have pushed once-recovering species such as the numbat back on to the endangered list.
Numbats declined in number to about 300 in only two areas of the southwest of the continent in the mid-1980s before a conservation effort was launched to provide breeding groups to other sanctuaries. Today, there are 10 sites, including populations in NSW and South Australia.
But at the main population at Dryandra, south of Perth, numbers have crashed from a high of 850 in 1992 to about 50, with the sharpest decline in the past three years. Feral cats are believed to be responsible after they took up space in the food chain left by the eradication of foxes.
Dryandra ranger Tony Friend says a study of woylies led to the marsupials being fitted with radio collars so they could be located when they died. “Out of 98 woylie, 69 were taken by cats and only 11 per cent by foxes,” Mr Friend says. “It was quite a surprise because you don’t see the cats like you do the foxes.”
For Atticus Fleming, chief executive of Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Dryandra confirms the worth of fenced sanctuaries and is further proof that government was failing the task of wildlife protection.
Mr Fleming is particularly scathing about what is happening in Kakadu, where small mammal numbers have fallen by 75 per cent in 15 years despite conservation funding of $20 million a year.