By Dr Karen Young, Wildlife Ecologist and Larissa Potter, Senior Field Ecologist
It began with detections of an Endangered species poorly known from the Kimberley. It grew into an opportunity for collaboration and three- way learning between Wilinggin and Dambimangari Women Rangers and AWC, all while developing a deeper understanding of the elusive and Endangered Black-footed Tree-rat.
Better known from the Northern Territory and north-east Queensland, the Black-footed Tree-rat also occurs in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Sightings are rare and the detection of a Black-footed Tree-rat by staff from the WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions on Wilinggin Country in 2017 was the first record of this species in the Kimberley for 30 years.
Excitingly in 2019, through the Wilinggin–AWC Partnership, camera surveys detected the Black-footed Tree-rat at another location in a valley on Wilinggin Country. To find out more about the abundance and habitat preferences of this species, both locations were resurveyed in 2021 with camera and live traps, but the species was only detected again at the original site.
Concurrently, the first record of the Black-footed Tree-rat was confirmed on Dambimangari Country when the species was caught on a camera during a Dambimangari–AWC survey. The tree-rat was observed in the same valley not far from the second Wilinggin location.
Detections on Wilinggin and Dambimangari Country at opposite ends of this large valley sparked everyone’s interest. Were animals moving through? Or is there a resident but elusive population spread along this remote valley?
These detections offered two unique opportunities, facilitated through the Wilinggin–AWC and Dambimangari–AWC Partnerships, to:
Wilinggin Country camera sites were identified from satellite imagery and scoped out via aerial reconnaissance with the involvement of WAC staff. For the Dambimangari sites, DAC–AWC Biodiversity Ranger Azarnia Malay – one of Dambimangari’s first female rangers – selected locations based on satellite imagery and mapping software, using skills she has been learning and practising over the last two years.
Home base was set as Bachsten Camp on Wilinggin Country, with all activities to be undertaken in mixed teams of women from WAC, DAC and AWC. The Wilinggin, Dambimangari and AWC teams convened at Ngallagunda (Gibb River) to make the long journey along the Jilariba track to Bachsten. The expedition began on well-graded dirt roads but these were soon left behind for a rough path winding over many water crossings, bogs, washouts and rocky jump-ups, following in the wake of Wilinggin’s Wunggurr Rangers who were opening the track ahead. Alas, the ‘slow road’ became ‘no road’ as the teams caught up to the Wunggurr Rangers – the early June rain had made sections of the track impassable. Poring over maps and complex logistical charts, a new plan was devised.
This saw everyone shift to AWC’s Charnley River– Artesian Range Wildlife Sanctuary for phase one of fieldwork, with three days spent by WAC–DAC–AWC women deploying cameras across the shared valley. Ngarinyin Women Risharni Macale, Cessa Bani, Travina Martin and Rona Charles (Wilinggin) took turns going out in the teams with Rangers Azarnia Malay and Cherylyn Ozies (Dambimangari) and AWC Senior Ecologists Karen Young (Wilinggin Partnership) and Larissa Potter (Dambimangari Partnership).
‘Coming out and seeing different Country, it was good, and working together’ said Dambimangari Ranger Azarnia.
With many tasks required in setting cameras, everyone had a role and skills to teach, learn and practise, including site selection, setting up the cameras, assessing tree hollow availability and entering data. Once set, the camera traps were left deployed for a month.
Phase two of fieldwork saw the women shift operations to Bachsten Camp via helicopter. Three nights were spent camping out at two different sites with a mixed WAC–DAC–AWC team at each. The teams’ spotlighted, used thermal scopes and trapped for teaching purposes (always with the hope that one of the elusive tree-rats might turn up!). The Dambimangari and Wilinggin Women worked together in setting trap lines, with Dambimangari Rangers showing Ngarinyin Women how to use the GPS or offering advice on how to position traps. The thermal scopes were new to all, so it was a shared learning experience searching for the heat signals of animals.
Dambimangari Ranger Azarnia said of the experience, ‘I didn’t think I’d be here, I’ve been a ranger for four years and didn’t think I’d be teaching other girls.’
There was much excitement when – on the first night! – one of the teams flushed a Black-footed Tree-rat out of long grass into a tree.
‘I was thinking of the rats in town, not these big rats… proper bush rats, much better!!’ Ngarinyin Woman Cessa said of the sighting, with Dambimangari Ranger Azarnia adding ‘When I saw the Black-footed Tree-rat I was really excited… I wasn’t expecting it to be so big.’
‘Just by looking at that animal [Black-footed Tree- rat], it gave me the motivation to do more,’ affirmed Wilinggin’s Cessa.
The following nights turned up Savanna Gliders, Red- backed Buttonquails, Golden-backed Tree-rats and bandicoots, but no more Black-footed Tree-rats. The live-trapping lines resulted in a few rock-rats and bandicoots – just enough for teaching and training purposes.
For Wilinggin’s Cessa this was ‘…my first experience seeing an animal in a trap… I never learnt about these animals in school, so learning on this trip, it really opened my mind.’
Dambimangari Ranger Azarnia summed up the constantly changing plans and resulting field work beautifully, ‘skills, time, practise …. we are not quitters…it was good how we worked everything out in the end.’
The camera trap results revealed the ‘shared Black- footed Tree-rat valley’ is aptly named! Throughout the valley cameras detected Black-footed Tree-rats at five sites, with three of these being new locations, adding to the small handful of known Black-footed Tree-rat locations in the Kimberley.
These detections, the data collected, the sharing of knowledge and working together is incredibly important. It is yielding a deeper understanding of Endangered Black- footed Tree-rat habitat preferences and distribution across the Native Title areas, enabling us all, through partnership, to better consider, monitor and protect the species’ habitat in the Kimberley. Working in the WAC–AWC Partnership and DAC–AWC Partnership on exciting projects such as this is also empowering women, such as Cessa, who summed up the benefit of her experience as ‘being a role model to our community.’
Wilinggin Aboriginal Corporation and AWC work collaboratively across 1.73 million hectares of Wilinggin Country in the north-west Kimberley. Ngarinyin Traditional Owners have a strong, active and ongoing connection to their Country and WAC runs the successful Wunggurr Ranger program and Wilinggin Indigenous Protected Area.
Dambimangari Aboriginal Corporation and AWC work collaboratively across 800,000 hectares of Dambimangari Country on the Kimberley coast and 568,000 hectares at Yampi Sound Training Area on the Traditional Lands of the Dambimangari People. Dambimangari Traditional Owners have a strong, active and ongoing connection to their Country and protect an area rich in natural and cultural values.
As guests on Country, AWC supports DAC and WAC’s existing land management programs and helps to enhance the delivery of conservation science. Central to the success of these partnerships is the mutual and respectful exchange of culture and understanding.