A researcher at the University of Tasmania has suggested Maria Island off Tasmania’s east coast could be an ideal location to form an insurance population of the threatened brush-tailed rock wallaby.
- Maria Island has already been used as a safe haven for other species
- The brush-tailed rock wallaby is battling for survival on the mainland, due to predators and habitat loss
- Translocating a species is seen as a last resort, but experts say it may be necessary “due to climate change”
The wallabies are found throughout Australia’s eastern seaboard, but like the koala, are not found in Tasmania.
Last year’s bushfires destroyed significant parts of natural habitat including places where the wallaby is found.
But researcher Shane Morris believes he might have found a safe place for the wallaby to thrive.
‘It’s a wild idea’
Moving a species from their native habitat to an offshore island is not a new method to try and save an animal from extinction, but it can be seen as controversial.
“It has worked before and it can become another tool in our toolkit for conservation management in the future,” Mr Morris said.
Mr Morris researched the natural habitat of the rock wallaby and places they do not live that might be suitable.
“I found that parts of Tasmania would have some pretty suitable areas,” he said.
“Maria Island would be a good place … you have these rocky areas they tend to inhabit, and you’ve got the Tasmanian devils which would stop them from spreading into areas you wouldn’t want them to go.”
The paper’s co-author professor Chris Johnson says due to the absence of foxes — the animal’s main predator on the mainland — the island could be a safe place for the wallabies.
“This type of wallaby has a very southern distribution and lives in habitats very similar to Tasmanian environments.
“The fear of introducing a new species is that the population would expand and cover the entire state … but if the wallabies move away from those rocky areas [on Maria Island] we have the devil, and the devil would probably prevent them from spreading into flat country.”
Maria Island has already been used to translocate species.
A population of Tasmanian devils were moved from mainland Tasmania to the island after the outbreak of a facial tumour disease.
The wombats on the island are also a subspecies, different to the rest of Tasmania, that were introduced in the 1970s.
Mr Morris believes due to the dire future facing the brush-tailed rock wallaby on the mainland, now is the time to consider more radical alternatives.
Graeme Coulson is an associate professor at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Southern Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby Recovery Team.
He said he was surprised by the idea of translocating rock wallabies to Maria Island.
“This idea has come out of the blue — we are certainly not looking at new sites in Tasmania,” he said.
“Maria Island could be suitable down the track but we don’t know how the devils and rock wallabies would interact.”
Mr Coulson also said a lack of suitable habitat for the animal was not the main issue threatening the animal’s survival.
“Some populations have been threatened by fire but others haven’t — the key issues are to do with genetic diversity and also controlling predators such as foxes,” he said.
Tasmania could be called on to save threatened species
University of Tasmania law lecturer, Phillipa McCormack, said translocating a species was seen as a last resort.
“From a legal perspective, our conservation laws allow us to identify species at risk of extinction, we put them on a list, and then our governments can produce a recovery plan,” she said.
“Australia has seen a lot of last resort situations and it’s tragic that it’s common because we see so many species right on the brink of extinction.
“We are going to see quite a few more where translocation is proposed because due to climate change, their natural home is just no longer suitable.”
Dr McCormack says the broader Tasmanian community might need to confront the possibility of mainland native animals being brought to Tasmania in the future, as the effects of climate change continue to threaten native species.
“We know that Tasmania offers some really important habitats for species going forward. We have a lot here that needs to be protected, as well as recognising that stuff on the mainland needs access to places that will persist,” she said.
“It’s important to take more of a global perspective. Australia has responsibility to prevent the extinction of Australian species.
“Climate change is going to make that hard and Tasmanians have to have a conversation with each other and the rest of Australia about our role in that process.
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