Project Eden - Western Australia

In 1990, the Western Australian government purchased Peron Pastoral Station, situated on Point Peron which is 726 kilometres north of Perth. The 1050 square kilometres was to become the new Francois Peron National Park. The nearest towns are Denham on the southern edge of the Park and Carnarvon 80 kilometres to the north. The area includes Monkey Mia, a popular resort with tourists as there is the opportunity to interact with a group of dolphins which have been coming there for over 40 years.

During 1990, the Shark Bay area achieved World Heritage rating. Since then, Peron Peninsula has undergone a transformation with all feral species being removed (or largely so), native flora replanted or allowed to rejuvenate and the cessation of all farming and pastoral activity. The area is returning to the vibrant ecosystem that is once was. By creating a secure environment, the dream was that the area could be returned to what it was in the time of Peron.

Francois Peron was a French naturalist, explorer and zoologist who accompanied Nicholas Baudin on scientific expeditions to Western Australia in 1801 and 1803. Peron documented twenty-three mammal species. Before the establishment of Project Eden there were nine species remaining. Twelve of the others are locally extinct and two globally extinct. Foxes, feral cats, habitat loss and competition for food from goats, sheep, cattle and rabbits all contributed to the decimation of native species.

The idea of re-introducing and repopulating the Peron Peninsula with native species was inspired by several factors:

  • The granting of World Heritage Site listing
  • Creation of the Francois Peron National Park
  • Fox baiting research carried out by CALM (Conservation and Land Management) was showing encouraging results
  • Research into fencing and predator exclusion carried out by CSIRO

Project Eden began in 1991 with three goals:

  • The removal of feral animals
  • The reintroduction of native wildlife once extinct in the area
  • Research tourism and education to improve knowledge and inform the public about the project.

The Park was earmarked for the creation of Australia's largest animal sanctuary. This isthmus is over 75 kilometres long and has a very narrow neck of around 3 kilometres making it an ideal place to place an electric fence, partitioning off the entire peninsula. Once fenced, the population of feral cats and foxes could hopefully be reduced and controlled, giving native species a far better chance of surviving and repopulating the area.

When first taken over, the removal of thousands of head of stock led to an almost immediate rejuvenation of native vegetation. Over 15,000 sheep and cattle had been removed by 1994. A conservative estimate put goat numbers at over 12,500. These are mostly gone with the remaining few kept under tight control.

The latest biological and technological eradication techniques have been introduced to remove feral animals.

The removal of foxes was imperative to a successful re-stocking with native species. The official beginning of Project Eden was in 1995 when foxes were declared 'eradicated'. An estimated 2,500 foxes and untold number of feral cats lived on the peninsula at the start of the project. Road kills were immediately scavenged and the only tracks visible were fox tracks. Aerial and manual baiting using 1080 baits saw the fox population virtually eliminated in the first year. Cats are less susceptible to baiting as prey is so prevalent. They can also very cautious of traps. However, trapping and refining of the bait program has resulted in an estimated 80% kill of feral cats.

Control of the rabbit population is ongoing. The introduction of diseases such as myxomatosis and calicivirus has helped control numbers but seasonal variations in climate are even more effective with numbers dropping in late summer.

That leaves rabbits, cats and mice. These populations have been reduced but eradication is impossible at the present time.

Continued intensive use of the cat trapping program has been hampered by those it is intended to help as inquisitive bilbies and woylies insist on checking out traps. Aerial baiting is now the only method in use. This has most success at the end of severe drought periods when there is little natural prey available.

By 1997, a large proportion of the feral pests had been removed and the local ecosystem was well on the way to recovery.

When the idea was first mooted, captive breeding programs were set up so that there would be animals available for transfer when the time came. This was also an ideal opportunity to learn more about the life cycles of the various native marsupials and mammals, many of which were largely 'unknown quantities' to biologists and conservationists.

Dirk Hartog Island was purchased for conservation purposes with an eye to eliminating the feral cat population there and reintroducing native species to provide new animals for eventual relocation elsewhere. The Peron Captive Breeding Centre was set up to provide safe conditions in which native species could safely reproduce.

At Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre on the Darling Escarpment overlooking Perth, a breeding program was set up in an effort to breed bilbies (Macrotis lagotis). Little was known about their sex life and mating procedures. Insight into the mating behaviour and reproductive cycle of native mammals is of great assistance when attempting translocation.

The burrows and tunnels of the bilbies were fitted with infrared cameras and the behaviour of the animals filmed. Thus it was that the mating frenzy of Yennadah and Sharka was captured on film. Mating lasted on and off for 18 hours (literally 'off' as Yennadah, the male, was so exhausted he fell off Sharka several times).

Eventually the time came to reintroduce wildlife into Francois Peron National Park. Several locally extinct animal species have now been reintroduced to the peninsula. There have been varying degrees of success however.

The MalleefowlCredit: Wikimedia

The malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata) is a large, ground-dwelling bird of the megapod (big feet) family. It flies only when alarmed. It incubates its eggs in a mound which can reach a metre high and five metres in diameter. The male tends the nest building up leaf litter and debris to keep the inner temperature of the nest at an acceptable high. Too hot and he scrapes away the covering until the temperature drops. Too cold and he scratches off some of the covering. It is an almost year-long job to care for the nest. When the young hatch, they push their way out, rest for a few minutes then hurtle into the scrub. They are on their own right from the beginning.

Because of the low levels of successful hatchings in the wild, eggs were collected and artificially incubated. This took place at the Peron Captive Breeding Centre. Between September 1997 and September 1998, over 65 malleefowl were released at 14 sites at the National Park. Radio transmitters were fitted to some and their movements monitored. Since then, there are at least nine active mounds and new chicks are seen most years.

WoylieCredit: Wikimedia

The woylie (Bettongia penicillata) is small and nocturnal. It is a member of the macropod family (big feet [animals this time as opposed to megapod birds]) and moves by hopping. Its nest is an elaborate grass dome.

Between September 1997 and September 2000, 147 woylies were released at nine sites. There had been an amazing recovery of the species in its natural range in the south-west of Western Australia which made possible a direct wild to wild translocation. They survived over several drought periods but additional specimens were needed to increase the gene pool. However, population in the south-west declined sharply and inexplicably and new introductions were curtailed. Since 2003, thirty-three new woylies have been recorded.

Bilby(68315)Credit: Wikimedia

The greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis) has large ears, a pointy snout and blue-grey fur. The tail is black and white. It is a member of the bandicoot family and is a powerful digger, excavating twisting tunnels which may be 3 metres long and 1.8 metres deep. Between 2000 and 2005, 151 bilbies were released at ten sites. Nearly 20 new animals have been sighted and tracks show bilby activity in 22% of the areas surveyed. The bilby story is probably the greatest success story of the region.

The banded hare-wallaby (Lagostrophus fasciatus) is small and a grizzled grey with transverse dark stripes across the back. They live in communal groups and are one of the world's most restricted mammal species. They are extinct on the mainland but there are wild populations on Bernier and Dorre Islands in Shark Bay.

In 2001, a small group of banded hare-wallabies were released as a trial. Unfortunately most fell prey to cats. Those that survived and raised joeys adapted well. Meanwhile hare-wallabies bred at the Peron Captive Breeding Centre have been presented to the non-government Australian Wildlife Conservancy (Noah's Ark) for release onto the predator-free Faure Island. Forty-nine wallabies have been sent there since 2004.

Rufous hare wallaby(68313)Credit: Wikimedia

The rufous hare-wallaby (Lagorchestes hirsutus) or mala was once found in the arid regions of Australia but is now confined to isolated pockets in fenced enclosures. It was declared extinct in the wild in 1995. Twenty-nine were brought from the protected Tanami Desert group to Shark Bay for captive breeding in 1999. In 2001, a small group was released but did not adjust well and most were eaten by cats. Some survived and raised joeys which was encouraging. Feral cat control is continuing!

The southern brown bandicoot (Isoodon obesulus) or quenda is tough and nocturnal, preferring low scrubby vegetation on sandy soils. Forty refugees from the Perth metropolitan area were released in 2006 and 2007. As the stocky quenda is almost minus a neck, transmitter collars are of little use but there appears evidence that the animal is breeding and dispersing through the scrub of the Park.

Thorny Devil(68311)Credit: Wikimedia

Thorny devil (above)

There are a number of other species occurring naturally in the Shark Bay area including the sand goanna, spiny-tailed skink, woma python, thorny devil, echidna, emu and thick-billed grasswren. Future releases are likely to include the western barred bandicoot, Shark Bay mouse, and greater stick-nest rat.

The latest release was in May 2011 when nine chuditch were released into the Park. Four of the nine were fitted with radio collars and all were micro-chipped. Boofa, a male, slipped his collar and travelled 120 kilometres. He was then recaptured and brought back to the park. If the new population thrives, another 40 will be introduced into the area.

Such havens for these rare little mammals probably offer the best hope for their continued survival.