Twelve years ago, long-serving Ecologist, Angela Sanders and her team arrived on Bush Heritage’s Kojonup reserve, Wagyl Kaip and Southern Noongar Country, Western Australia, with 30 Red-tailed Phascogales.
Now, after more than a decade of careful management and detailed monitoring, the results of a long-awaited genetic diversity test have signalled to Angela and her team that the population is varied and healthy. For Angela Sanders, who recently retired after an incredible 18 years at Bush Heritage and three decades of work as an ecologist, it was worth the toil.
“The Red-tail Phascogale is a threatened species. It used to occur right across Southern WA and across into the east as well, but it now occurs in less than 1% of its former range,” says Angela.
To stem this rapid decline and preserve Phascogale numbers, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions approached Bush Heritage in 2010 with a proposal to run a ‘wild-to-wild’ translocation.
Weighing in at around 30-50 grams, less than the weight of a chicken egg, each of these tiny marsupials had been selected from other reserves as ambassadors to represent a once thriving population which spread across much of southern Australia. The project was the first ‘wild-to-wild' Phascogale translocation.
So, why Kojonup? Suitable habitat under conservation management by Bush Heritage meant the reserve was well-equipped.
"Kojonup Reserve, being a really healthy woodland with lots of hollows, was in a really good condition to provide the resources,” says Angela. “So you control the predators, you've got plenty of places to hide, it should go really well, and in this case, it did.”
Recent results from a study by Rhiannon de Visser from the University of Western Australia have confirmed that the population’s gene pool is sufficiently diverse and no further translocations are needed.
A collaboration between Bush Heritage, the University of Western Australia, the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, and Australian Wildlife Conservancy allowed Rhiannon to analyse genetic samples from across the species remaining fragmented range to compare Kojonup to other wild populations.
She found similar genetic diversity in the Kojonup population to populations in other nature reserves, and signs that these patchily distributed populations are maintaining genetic connectivity despite the fragmentation of their habitat.
If you've been following along at home, you’ll know that this story has been a long and fabled one for the phascogales at Kojonup. It featured in episode five, season 1 of the Big Sky Country podcast and Angela has been a leading character in their journey. These findings are welcome news to her after all these years.
After years of rigorous monitoring, the team knew the animals were surviving to breed, but the results offer an even brighter outlook for the future health of the population. It’s a huge win for Angela and the team, who have been actively monitoring the population, hoping they thrive in their new home.
The males only live for 11 months and females up to three years, so the challenge extended far beyond keeping the initial population alive. Success depended on whether the Phascogales were breeding successfully, and as the genetic study explored, how their genes had intermingled.
So, after almost three decades of service as an ecologist, and one of the most respected minds at Bush Heritage, Angela Sanders is leaving on an optimistic note. It’s also left her feeling hopeful about what’s possible when you focus on what’s in front of you.
“I still have hope because the team that we've got here at Bush Heritage gives me hope….Because I've focused on working locally and just doing what I can locally, it helps to keep the hope alive.”
The impact of three decades of field work is impossible to measure, but she has been lucky enough to witness a lot of the benefits of landscape restoration and subsequently, fauna recovery.
“It’s fantastic because I've been on board for most of the property acquisitions in the Fitz-Stirling, so it certainly gives you a bit of hope that you can do your bit where you can. Creating fauna habitat for me is pretty incredible because when we first started in 2004, the Gondwana Link Project, which has actually happened, it exceeded all our expectations of recolonisation of fauna on restored farmland…and certainly, I've seen so many improvements to the land over the last 30 years I’ve been working down here. I’ve seen a lot of improvements, and a lot more people are now on board to keep it going.”
Special thanks to Renee Catullo from The University of Western Australia, DBCA’s Kym Ottewell, AWC’s Jennifer Pierson, and Bush Heritage’s Dr Michelle Hall.