A hint of movement in the darkened rocks, a scratch in the dirt, a white flash in the hushed night: trapped! A shy black-flanked rock wallaby mother and her joey are caught in a freeze-frame, using one of the motion-trigger cameras my colleague Phil Lewis and I have set up in rocky outcrops across Western Australia’s biodiversity-rich Wheatbelt.
We’ve been running sensor cameras for a few months now, in support of monitoring efforts by the WA Department of Environment and Conservation. We’re helping them try to find out more about why the vulnerable Black-flanked Rock-wallaby populations in the Wheatbelt region in WA’s southwest are declining so fast.
The Black-flanked Rock-wallabies are cute creatures: about knee-high, furry with long striped tails, usually longer than their body height, which they use for balance while they hop along rocks. They live in granite hills and rocky piles, in crevices and caves, emerging in the early evening to feed on grasses and shrubs, or on winter mornings to sun themselves.
Out here in the Wheatbelt, they are rapidly disappearing.
Once they were spread across the central desert in swathes of the Northern Territory, South Australia and Western Australia. Nowadays only a few isolated populations remain. Many populations are extinct, largely due to predator red foxes. Many of the remaining populations are under threat from foxes and feral cats.
The granite-strewn Wheatbelt region is home to one of those remaining populations, and it’s here that they are in critical decline. In addition to threats from foxes and feral cats faced by populations elsewhere, the Wheatbelt population – known among the Western Desert Aboriginal people as ‘warru’ – is also under threat from land clearing, weed invasion, bushfire, and long-term drought all contributing to habitat degradation. They’re competing with rabbits and kangaroos for depleted food sources.
Most of the individual hill populations across the Wheatbelt have seriously declined by well over 50 percent in the last few years. Some populations are down to literally a handful of animals. If the declines continue, researchers are convinced that some if not most of the hills will lose their Rock-wallabies.
We’ve amassed a heap of great stills and video clips of these dwindling Rock-wallabies, taken with infrared-flash cameras which result in black and white images that can be surprisingly good. Even better though are the lovely colour images that white-flash sensor cameras can produce.
So we decided we needed to set up a white-flash ‘home brew’ type sensor camera. We got hold of an old Olympus camera from WWF’s Threatened Species Network. The camera’s a clunker and can be frustrating to use, it’s fiddly and unreliable, and has limited battery life; but it has an incandescent white flash, so when it does work it can take beautiful pictures. We rigged it up with a big, rechargeable lead-acid battery, and put it out in Black-flanked Rock-wallaby habitat in the hope of getting some nice colour pics.
Through our DEC contacts, we’ve been working with landholders John and Natalie who farm in the Kellerberrin area about 250 kilometres east of Perth.
They’ve got their own Rock-wallaby granite hill in their backyard and were happy for us to set up cameras there on their property. So one day in January, in we went and set our Olympus up on a granite ledge next to a cave . We returned a month later hoping it had worked. As you can imagine we were pretty keen to check this camera. We climbed up into the cave and took a look. At first it didn’t look too good. The camera had been knocked over and was no longer working. But we checked the memory card and to our great delight, we discovered it had captured some superb images before being knocked over.
All the effort was well worth it. We got pics of a mother Rock-wallaby and joey, Rock-wallabies coming right up to the camera and checking it out [P1190010], and some great Rock-wallaby poses. Needless to say, we’re pretty pleased with these pics!. Can’t wait to pass them on to John and Natalie and see their faces! We’re very grateful to them for letting us access their property when we need to check these cameras.
Australians are effectively the guardians of the Rock-wallaby. This is the only place on earth they are found. The Black-flanked species featured here are one of 16 Rock-wallaby species on our continent.
The photos and video from our sensor cameras help us engage people whose land has the kind of rocky escarpments and granite outcrops where rock wallabies shelter. When landowners see the footage of the secret life of these beautiful marsupials on their own property, it can really inspire them to get involved in protecting them, for example by fox control or forms of land management.
The sensor camera program is a great tool for learning about shy or nocturnal fauna.
Check out some of the mesmerising footage of hidden wildlife our sensor cameras have captured previously.
The biodiversity in Southwest Australia is incredible. An extraordinary range of fauna and flora dwell here. It’s unequalled anywhere else in the country. In fact it is one of the planet’s 34 internationally recognised biodiversity hotspots.
Capturing these rare species on un-manned cameras allows everyone to see them up close and personal, in their natural habitat, in ways we simply never would otherwise.
We’re thrilled with the results. Hope you are too.