Many locals and tourists make the one-hour drive from Canberra to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve on a regular basis to enjoy the extensive range of educational and fun natural experiences offered within the park including wildlife viewing, bushwalking, bike riding and picnicking.
These recreational sites are concentrated around the Tidbinbilla visitor centre and offer a diverse range of biodiversity to explore.
While this area of the park is important for public education and promotion of biodiversity values, there is a large hidden area of Tidbinbilla that many don’t get to see.
Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to go behind the scenes to explore this hidden part of the reserve where tremendous effort is being put into conservation programs to preserve important threatened species which contribute to global and national declines in biodiversity.
The Plight of the Brush Tailed Rock Wallaby
The brush-tailed rock-wallaby (Petrogale penicillate) has been listed as Vulnerable under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) 1999.
This listing can be attributed to the species’ declining population as a result of three key pressures including:
- Habitat loss largely as a result of land clearing
- Increased competition for food resources with animals like feral goats, sheep and rabbits
- Predation by the European Fox.
The population of the southern brush-tailed rock wallaby, in particular, has seen a great decline. It was estimated in 2015 that there were only 80 left in the world, both in captivity and in the wild. Of the captive population, Tidbinbilla is home to 70% of the species.
Tidbinbilla Breeding Program
During my work experience at Tidbinbilla I visited the captive breeding centre for the southern brush-tailed rock wallaby which was established in 1996 as part of the national recovery breeding program between a number of agencies across south-eastern Australia.
While the work experience was an amazing opportunity to get up close and personal with the threatened species, cleaning their enclosures and preparing their food, I found the opportunity to talk to one of the wildlife officers equally as valuable.
I was able to gain a great insight into breeding and assisted reproduction programs often used within biodiversity recovery plans.
In the past, Tidbinbilla wildlife officers undertook ground-breaking research into a new accelerated breeding technique called cross-fostering which increased reproduction rates from the natural rate of 1.5 joeys per year to 4-8 joeys per year.
This was achieved by removing joeys from their maternal brush-tailed rock wallaby mothers and placing them with a foster mother of a similar species (i.e. yellow-footed rock wallaby). By doing this, the effort required by the maternal mother to lactate and nurture was eliminated, allowing her instead to place her efforts into reproducing again.
I was told, however, by the wildlife officers that these accelerated breeding programs are not used at present.
Management of genetics
Instead, current efforts are put towards managing and researching the genetics of the macropods to build genetic resilience and diversity.
The aim is to build a captive population of 200 with a strong diverse gene pool between Tidbinbilla Nature Park and Mount Rothwell in Victoria to then be released into the wild. A $650,000 initiative was announced this year to support these current conservation aims for the species, including the construction of a 120-hectare semi-wild predator proof enclosure at Tidbinbilla.
This change in management reflects a growing understanding in biodiversity conservation that simply increasing numbers of a population is not enough to ensure conservation of a species – we need to also consider genetic variability when rebuilding a population to protect against disease and reduce risk of deformities.
Thank you to Nicole, Jennifer and John for allowing me this opportunity to work as a wildlife officer for a day. It was truly a great opportunity to consolidate theoretical concepts taught within the classroom and is an experience I would suggest to any keen conservationist.