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215,500 ha
640km south of Mt Isa
Traditional Owners:
Wangkamadla people

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.

It’s home to a wetland system of national significance, brimming with shrimp, 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.

Smaller mammals abound, including the nationally vulnerable Mulgara – a small but feisty carnivorous marsupial. It’s one of just a few places that still supports a large Mulgara population.

A Crest-tailed Mulgara. Photo Ayesha Tulloch.

What Ethabuka protects

Animals: Paucident Planigale, Spinifex Hopping Mouse, Thorny Devil, Woma (rare desert python), Australian Bustard, Freckled Duck, Painted Honeyeater, Eyrean Grasswren, Grey Falcon.

Plants: Pituri, River Red Gum, Ironwood, Wild Orange.

Vegetation communities: Hummock (spinifex) grassland, Coolabah and bloodwood woodland, Mallee, Chenopod (saltbush) shrubland, Gidgee woodland, Grevillea tall shrublands.

What we’re doing

With help from our supporters we’re tackling fire, ferals and fences as the major management priorities. Kyle Barton and Helene Aubault are our managers in residence.

Introduced grazers have taken a heavy toll here. Camels foul important watering holes and destabilise dune crests. The cattle are now gone, and we’re aiming to eradicate camels. The sensitive artesian springs are fenced off to keep camels out.

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.

Wildfire is a threat to the reserve, but we manage the risk using fire breaks and controlled burns. The biggest issue with fire on Ethabuka is that it burns through spinifex grasses and old-growth spinifex (20 to 30 years old) supports greater biodiversity. This work is paying off and we’re finding more small mammals.

Long-term research

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’ve reached a stronger understanding of spinifex’s seeding patterns and the flow-on effects these may have on small mammals. And all the information gathered by the University of Sydney is publicly available!

Professor Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney. Photo Bobby Tamayo.

It never rains but it pours

Every few decades a miracle takes place at Ethabuka. 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.

A 4wd convoy after flooding. Photo Julian Fennesy.

Cultural values

Ethabuka Reserve is part of Wangkamadla country, 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.

Ethabuka’s purchase was made possible with funds from the Commonwealth’s National Reserve System Program, as well as our generous supporters.