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The landscape at Ethabuka Reserve.
The landscape at Ethabuka Reserve.

Ethabuka

Established:

2004

Area:

215,500 ha

Location:

640km south of Mt Isa

Traditional Custodians:

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 fireferals 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.

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.

Learn more about our Conservation Management Process and how we measure our impact or download a full ecological scorecard for the reserve below.

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.

Photo gallery


Species at Ethabuka

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Stories from Ethabuka

Prescribed burn at Pilunga Reserve, Wangkamadla Country. By Bee Stephens

BUSHTRACKS 27/10/2023

Land, bird, smoke and man

Prescribed burns on Pilungah and Ethabuka reserves, Wangkamadla Country, prepare the landscape for bushfire season and enhance biodiversity.

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BLOG 01/06/2022

Thorny Devil rescue & release

Someone surrendered a Thorny Devil to Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service in Mackay. They contacted us here at Ethabuka Reserve to see if we could release it. After some treatment, and a health check we released it on reserve the next day.

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BLOG 21/02/2022

What has all this rain meant for our fire team?

The 2021/22 La Nina has brought significant rainfall to the eastern seaboard of Australia, while the west has seen below average conditions. Here are some weather highlights from the first few months.

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BLOG 09/12/2021

In defence of rats

An ecologist’s ode to our native rodents. We recently encountered a rat plague of native Long-haired Rats (Rattus villosissimus) at Ethabuka Reserve, Wangkamadla country during our annual fauna survey. Native long-haired rats are well known for their population eruptions which has earned it its other common name of Plague Rat!

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BLOG 23/09/2021

My desert story

I was hesitant about going out to the desert to volunteer for Bush Heritage in January this year. It’s such a long way and it’s dusty and hot. But a trip to Craven’s Peak was available and I thought I should – don’t I always say, “if you haven’t tried something, don’t knock it?”

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A feral cat in the scrub. Photo Annette Ruzicka.

BUSHTRACKS 15/04/2021

The problem with cats

Feral cats kill an estimated 2 billion animals in Australia every year, but nuanced solutions on Bush Heritage reserves and partnership properties across Australia are helping to turn the tide.

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BLOG 26/03/2021

A healthy desert is crucial for my culture’s survival

A new report published last week highlights 19 ecosystems on land and sea country that are unravelling due to pressures from climate change and human impacts. The Georgina Gidgee woodlands of central Australia is one of them.

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BLOG 14/01/2021

Red sand country – food for the soul

With words and brush, volunteer caretaker, Angela Woltmann paints a glorious picture of Christmas spent on Ethabuka Reserve with her husband Shane.

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BLOG 13/02/2020

Negotiating a desert summer

Early summer months (December-January) bring back the unrelentless dry heat to Bush Heritage’s Ethabuka Reserve in far western Queensland. Temperatures soar over the mid-40s and rolling dust storms and haze that always seem to arrive when you have just cleaned the house!

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BUSHTRACKS 16/12/2019

Afterlife in the outback

University of Sydney researcher Emma Spencer is helping us understand how carcasses might be putting our native species at risk.

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BLOG 15/08/2019

Desert carcasses research

University of Sydney PhD student Emma Spencer is monitoring life and death out in far western Queensland.

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BLOG 29/01/2019

Ethabuka – land of extremes

Already 7 months have passed since we arrived at Ethabuka, and one thing that has amazed us is the weather. Arid areas certainly are lands of the extreme! Cold, hot, windy, dusty...

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BLOG 14/12/2018

Feral cats caught on camera

We've been testing the use of burn lines as a way to draw cats towards our new Felixer cat traps at Ethabuka Reserve. The results so far are super encouraging.

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BUSHTRACKS 11/12/2018

Outback extremes

A more sophisticated understanding of how climate change will impact Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves is focusing our conservation efforts when and where they will do the greatest good.

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BLOG 23/08/2018

Predators! Keep calm, just carrion

Have you ever stopped to think, how does the provision of resources in the landscape affect wildlife patterns in general? If you add a heap of additional unexpected food resources, what then happens to the array of carrion eaters and predators, and how does this affect other smaller animals?

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BLOG 12/06/2018

That tricksy Felixy

It's well known that cats have a huge and often catastrophic impact on native species and are notoriously difficult to control. The Felixer cat trap might be the solution.

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BUSHTRACKS 06/12/2016

Canoeing in the desert: Ethabuka under water

At least 330mls of rain has fallen at Ethabuka Reserve so far this year – but in a cruel irony, it’s been too wet to reach the weather station so no-one has the exact figures.

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BLOG 27/10/2016

Ethabuka volunteers

Fourteen groups of volunteers kept us busy this year. Reconstructing and strengthening boundary fences was the top priority. In one particularly mammoth undertaking, volunteers managed to pull down and wind up 20km of fence in two days! On another day, two teams went out and put in an extra 2,000 posts at weak points along a fence to strengthen it.

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BUSHTRACKS 30/09/2016

Sydney University at Ethabuka

Scientists from all walks of life are drawn to the red sands of Ethabuka Reserve to volunteer under the expert guidance of our research partners from The University of Sydney.

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BLOG 02/12/2015

A year of arrivals at Ethabuka Reserve

This year Reserve couple, Matt and Amanda Warr, welcomed not only a new family member, but also a small army of volunteers to their new desert home. Here, Amanda reflects on the Warr Family's first year living on Ethabuka Reserve and the volunteers who supported them.

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