A map showing the location of Ethabuka Reserve in Queensland.

Established: 2004
Area: 215,500 ha
Location: Western Qld, 640km south of Mt Isa
Traditional Owners: Wangkamadla people

Detailed map >

Ethabuka is classic boom and bust country.

When it’s dry, all the eye can see is red sand dunes and semi-arid plains stretching far into the distance.

But when the rains come, waterholes, wetlands and remote river systems are jolted into life.

Perched in the north of the Simpson Desert, Ethabuka Reserve is a haven for desert wildlife and boasts a remarkable collection of mammals, birds and reptiles.

Ethabuka has one of the richest lists of reptile species in Australia. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
Ethabuka has one of the richest lists of reptile species in Australia. Photo Wayne Lawler/EcoPix.
It’s home to a wetland system of national significance, brimming with shrimps, fish and waterbirds following good rains. It also has one of the richest lists of reptile species in Australia, including Australia’s largest goanna, the Perentie.

And when times get tough, local animals retreat to the reserve – a regional, dry-season refuge.

All this has been protected thanks to the generosity of our supporters.

What we’re doing

With help from our supporters we're tackling fire, ferals and fences as the major management priorities.

Reserve Managers Kyle Barton and Helene Aubault conducting a cool burn. Photo Dr Alex Kutt.
Reserve Managers Kyle Barton and Helene Aubault conducting a cool burn. Photo Dr Alex Kutt.
Cattle and feral camels have taken a heavy toll here. Camels foul important watering holes and destabilise dune crests, while past cattle grazing caused severe damage to native habitats.

The cattle are now gone, and we're aiming to eradicate feral camels. The sensitive artesian springs are fenced off to keep camels out.

Wildfire is a threat to the reserve, but we manage the risk using fire breaks and controlled burns. This work is paying off, with areas of samphire and saltbush shrublands showing signs of recovery, and we’re finding more small mammals in the absence of cattle.

Long-term research

Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney. Photo Bobby Tamayo.
Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney. Photo Bobby Tamayo.
Since 1990, the University of Sydney's Desert Ecology Group has been a regular visitor. Aside from training students in the desert environment, returning to the same place over such a long period allows scientists to recognise patterns in plant and animal behaviour. It's only after observing rain patterns over time that they have reached a stronger understanding of spinifex's seeding patterns and the flow-on effects these may have on small mammals.

It never rains, but it pours

Every few decades a miracle takes place at Ethabuka Reserve.

A 4wd convoy after flooding. Photo Julian Fennesy.
A 4wd convoy after flooding. Photo Julian Fennesy.
The heavens open up across northern Queensland and turn the usually dry, parched landscape into a watery world teeming with life.

The Mulligan River, a dry creek bed 99% of the time, rushes through the reserve, filling waterholes, rejuvenating wetlands and turning the landscape green with new growth.

If the flood waters are high enough, the Mulligan joins forces with the Georgina River catchment further south, causing an explosion in migrating fish.

Cultural values

Ethabuka Reserve is part of Wangkamadla country. The Wangkamadla have a long-standing connection to this land, with rock paintings and significant ceremonial sites scattered across the reserve.

The reserve once lay on a trade route stretching from Queensland's Gulf of Carpentaria all the way to South Australia. The local narcotic plant pituri was traded in return for stone knives, seashells and even dugong-tusk daggers.