Together, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park rangers and traditional owners are using new ideas to save an old soul – a species of satchel- sized kangaroo known as the rufous hare wallaby, or mala.
Qantas Magazine, August 2014
TURN THE CLOCK BACK 80 YEARS. As dusk knits colour into the sky above Uluru, a cast of small furry faces appears. With white bellies and shaggy coats, the miniature kangaroos are just 30cm tall. They dart past ghost gums, sleep in sprays of spinifex and pull pencil-thin tails over red desert plains.
“At one time, there may have been as many as 10 million of these little animals across the arid and semi-arid landscape of Australia,” writes conservationist Jane Goodall in her book Hope For Animals & Their World.
“But their populations, like those of many other small endemic species, were devastated by the introduction of domestic cats and foxes. Indeed, during the 1950s it was thought the mala was extinct.”
For a decade or so, this myth persisted. Then in 1959, almost 1000km south of Darwin, tracks were found stamped in the soil – long narrow lines, straddled by footprints the size of 50-cent coins.
“The walker didn’t know what they were, so he brought an old Walpiri man along who knew these were mala tracks,” says Dr Jim Clayton, ranger, ecologist and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP) natural heritage officer. “So the species was rediscovered after all that time.”
Clayton says the mala are an important part of national heritage for all Australians. “We have iconic animals such as the bilby, but shouldn’t forget this suite of smaller animals that forms part of an ecosystem that has changed dramatically in recent years.”
Former vet Kerrie Bennison is Uluru’s natural and cultural resources manager. She oversees a team of five rangers who work with Anangu traditional owners to revive the mala in the Red Centre. “This animal is one of the most endangered there is, one of the most rare. The majority of Australians don’t know these tiny, 2kg kangaroos exist,” she says. “There’s not anything else – particularly in urban areas – that looks like them. They’re beautiful and really furry, and have these short, cute arms.”
Bennison says the Uluru mala project emerged after a series of disasters occurred in older colonies. Following the initial mala track sighting in the bush, two mobs were found in the Northern Territory’s Tanami Desert. A single fox wiped out the first group. A rogue fire destroyed the second. “Conservationists said, ‘That’s it. We’re taking them into captivity,’” she explains. In 1980, 22 mala were withdrawn from the wild and resettled in Alice Springs.
Clayton, who speaks Pitjantjatjara, the language of Uluru’s traditional owners, held meetings with elders following the species’ disappearance from the rock. He recalls that older Anangu lamented the loss of an animal central to the Uluru creation story – and the fact that younger people knew so little about the mala.
Craig Woods, a traditional owner and Uluru cultural heritage officer, has worked with the park for more than seven years. “The mala are part of the spiritual connection to Uluru. Some people have the mala as their totem animal,” he says.
In order to afford the species official conservation priority, the Anangu cast votes ranking the importance of each threatened animal. Among women voters, mala topped the list. It polled second for the men.
Six years later, in 2005, the rangers and 30 Anangu opened a predator-proof paddock. It became home to 24 mala.
Fast-forward to mid-2014, and the 170ha space – with sweeping views of Uluru – is now flush with newly bred roos. The mob is almost
300 strong, the largest known population in Australia, accounting for up to 75 per cent of mala nationwide.
The reasons for the success are manifold. But perhaps the project’s most innovative feature is its equally proportioned concert of Indig- enous and non-Indigenous input. Australian Geographic magazine heralded the mala project as one of the best examples of what joint UKTNP park management can achieve.
“We made a big conservation step forward, but also this massive cultural step forward,” says Bennison.
For starters, a combined Anangu and non-Anangu team built the 5.6km fence over 18 months, according to a flexible timeline. This allowed for requisite pauses, for cultural ceremonies and the like. “We could have got contractors in and had it finished within a couple of months, but we took longer. We wanted to feel that the project was ours,” says Clayton, whom the Anangu call “Jimmy-warra”.
Once the fence was up, a collective bank of traditional and non-traditional ecological wisdom informed the animal-care plan. Interviewing locals in Pitjantjatjara, Clayton and linguist Patrick Hookey gathered Indigenous understanding about the native mala’s behaviour and diet.
The paddock’s ecosystem design grew from here. It included feed stations and water drips, as well as hard science strategies tocope with threats such as fire, and rabbits, which compete with the mala for food. Bennison adds, “We also started working with mala conservationists across the country to devise a bigger-picture species-strengthening plan.”
To tackle cultural objectives, a targeted junior rangers program began. Via this, local Anangu children came to learn about the feeding system, spot tracks and conduct paddock burns. The pro- gram is staffed on a drop-in basis, pays casual wages and offers local employment opportunities. Yet its value transcends economics.
“For young people to see this species, one so familiar to their grandparents, means there’s a chance now to retain knowledge,” says Clayton. “Not just cultural knowledge, but Indigenous ecological knowledge thousands of years in the making.”
There’s the future to consider, too. While foxes and feral cats remain beyond the paddock boundaries, it’s unfeasible to return mala to open plains. Instead, there’s potential for Uluru-bred mala to be relocated to fox- and cat-free parts of Australia. Translocation is an idea that already boasts momentum among the broader mala conservation community. Trimouille Island in Western Australia, for example, is thought to host the nation’s next-largest population – one bred from Central Desert mala.
While others may have trodden a less interventionist path and let nature take its course, Clayton says this was never an option. “It’s hard for land managers to stand back and say, ‘This animal is becoming extinct, so it’s time for it to disappear’. Especially when we know that the species is in an unnatural, human-induced condition in the first place. Mala aren’t something we have the right to shut the door on.”
On a pre-dusk walk in the paddock, Clayton speaks of community nights when older Anangu come to see mala and sometimes assist with paddock burns. Among the regulars is a man in his 70s called Reggie. On burn nights, when the grass explodes with flame, he sits in the scrub and sings songlines to the sky.
Then there are Anangu who travel from farther away. One night, says Clayton, a frail woman came from lands south of Uluru. As they searched for mala, the woman, who had not seen the animals since childhood, began to clutch his arm. “She wasn’t saying much; she just stared intently at the tracks in the torchlight and kept cling- ing on tight. I asked if she was OK. She caught her breath, looked up with wide eyes, and said, ‘Yes. This is great, this is great.’”