Many animals arrived on Australia’s shores with European colonisation. Most are not compatible with native species. Some are downright destructive.  

Wild Deserts is a 10-year initiative that aims to restore around 400 square kms of Sturt National Park’s desert ecosystem by reintroducing locally extinct or endangered native mammals. 

Restoring the ecosystem also involves controlling invasive species, managing kangaroo populations and removing feral species. 

Large fenced enclosures, a ‘Wild Training Zone’ and a range of innovative predator control and research techniques are employed to achieve this. 

The initiative is led by Professor Richard Kingsford, from the UNSW Sydney School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences. The team onsite is led by UNSW Sydney ecologists Dr Bec West and Dr Reece Pedler.

Wild Deserts is a UNSW Sydney partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, Ecological Horizons, and the Taronga Conservation Society Australia. The teams also works alongside local communities and traditional owners.

"We have this really great team both supporting us and working with us. That's been one of the really key factors to the success so far." 
- Dr Reece Pedler

Challenges & opportunities

The initiative began in 2017. By late-2018, all rabbits, cats and foxes were eradicated from within two 4 km x 5 km enclosures surrounded by specialised feral-proof fencing. It is one of the largest feral-animal-free areas in Australia.  

But climate events initially held up the work. There were heatwaves, dust storms—and the most severe drought in NSW for 120 years between 2017–2020.  

“It looked a little bit like we built a fenced reserve on Mars,” Dr West said. 

“There was just no ground cover. No vegetation.” 

“Lifelong locals said they’d never seen it quite that bad before.” 

As trees and kangaroos died around them, the team had to put the animal reintroduction parts of the project on hold until 2020 when the drought broke. 

Seedlings then started sprouting within the enclosure. Grasses and shrubs that weren’t being nibbled off by rabbits or thousands of kangaroos began to thrive.  

Mammals that haven’t been seen in more than a hundred years, but were once widespread in NSW, were reintroduced via these enclosures in late-2020. This includes the greater bilby, western barred bandicoot, golden bandicoot, greater stick-nest rat, burrowing bettong, crest-tailed mulgara and the western quoll. 

Early surveying results show these populations are already growing and starting to thrive.

“Populations are increasing and lots of pouch young and new animals were detected in our latest round of trapping,” Dr West said.

“These results are so important for the long-term goal of restoring this magnificent desert ecosystem back to something like it once was,” Prof Kingsford said.

Aside from restoring native biodiversity to the area, these small mammals will help get the actual land closer to what it was before European colonisation. Their methods of digging turns the soil, helps it catch water and nutrients—and contributes to the overall health of the landscape.

“You see the sort of destruction that's happening generation by generation, and you think, on a local level, you have an opportunity to actually contribute to something tangible. Hopefully our children will get the opportunity to come and see those animals or be able to understand the importance that they've had in this environment."

 - Dr Bec West

Forward focused

The Wild Training Zone was also established in 2020. This is a ‘training ground’ stretched across more than 100 square kms. Within the grounds, the reintroduced native animals are released amongst predators roaming in monitored numbers. Here, they become ‘predator-savvy’—learning essential skills that can help them eventually coexist with feral predators beyond the fences. Their training is informed by innovative and cutting-edge research techniques. 

“A big part of this project is trying to find ways to progress this reintroduction and restoration work rather than continuing to rely on these fenced safe havens,” Dr Pedler said.

“Hopefully, in the next five years, we can have bilbies and bettongs living with small managed low densities of feral cats in our wild training zone and start to see some changes in their behaviour.”

The wellbeing and population numbers are monitored. Each bilby, bandicoot and mulgara in the Wild Deserts founding population has a tracker. These release unique radio signals, so the team follow the animal’s movements for the first couple of months following their release.

Holistically, the Wild Deserts team is building an understanding of desert ecosystems and the effects of their management. This includes monitoring landscape changes between the feral-free areas where bilbies and bandicoots have been released, and the outside, where predators and rabbits remain.

The initiative and the science behind it is showcased for the public at the Talpero Lookout interpretation area, which was opened in 2022 within Sturt National Park.

Display panels highlight the desert ecology—its plants, invertebrates, mammals, birds, frogs and reptiles. It also features the significance of Country for First Nations peoples and also looks at early European history within the park.

“We have deliberately developed a comprehensive set of interpretation panels which highlight our scientific approach to the reintroduction of locally extinct mammals into Sturt National Park,” Dr Pedler said.

“In particular, we concentrate on the entire ecosystem, not just on the mammals, and how these reintroductions affect the birds, the reptiles and even the soils.”

Though the project wrap ups in in 2027, Dr Pedler hopes for continued success. “Hopefully we can really build on the all the hard work that we've put into getting the place set up,” he said. “If the seasonal conditions continue, the recovery of the ecosystem that we're hoping to see will be accelerated.”

"It’s wonderful to see these animals back in their original home, prospering and restoring this desert ecosystem to some of its past magnificence.”

 -Professor Richard Kingsford

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