Rocking for Wallabies
Chris Curnow, October 2012
Bayden points to a rock face, a kind of domed and honeycombed section of the eroded dissected plateau that we stand exhausted upon.
“He look like that Buddha head,” he whispers into the rising heat.
Image: Potential rock wallaby habitat and the Buddha-like head shape (centre) as pointed out by Bayden, Grant Ranges, Nyikina and Mangala Native Title © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
As we stand out on a rampart I wipe the stinging sweat from my eyes and brow in order to squint across the way towards his lazily pointed hand. I suddenly see what he’s talking about – a partial profile of the ancient Buddha’s head squeezed into the cliff face. I am left in awe, again, of Bayden’s powers of observation in this landscape.
On our days together, teamed-up to scan the rocky scree slopes, the creviced cliff faces and the tenuous cliff-top terraces for evidence of the rare and threatened black-flanked rock – wallabies, Bayden’s ability to detect hidden patterns in the landscape, at both the macro and micro scale, never failed to amaze me.
We’d be picking our way up a scree slope, weaving around the massive old rings of father spinifex, grown ever bigger, their ring-circle-growth checked only by the wandering fire, and Bayden and his colleagues Ashton and Conan, would be constantly picking up invisible tracks, sweeps of grass ‘brushed’ aside, funneled ‘pathways’ and patterns in the sand beneath the cooler overhangs of the towering red cliffs.
Image: Bayden Rivers, Nyikina-Mangala Ranger, on a typical cross-cliff / terrace traverse in search of fresh exposed wallaby scats (droppings), Grant Ranges, Nyikina and Mangala Native Title © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
“Where did you guys learn this stuff?” I’d exclaim in my perspiring whitefella way, sucking on the hose pipe of the warming waterbag stuffed in my backpack, and aghast at my colleagues’ lack of water on their persons.
“Me grandfather showed me this way. He taught me good how to see them tracks”, says Bayden as he sweeps his hand across the echidna path evident in the white sands in the broad expanse of an overhang.
Image: Cliffs and overhangs, tracks in the sands and the ever-present aroma of the hayed off lemon-scented grass (Cymbopogon sp.), with just a hint of ginger (foreground) – the grass makes a good brew of tea at the end of the day! Grant Ranges, Nyikini and Mangala Native Title © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
The Nyikina and Managla rangers and WWF-Australia, together with the Kimberley Land Council, have teamed up to search for evidence of the remote and isolated West Kimberley race of the black-flanked rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis, also commonly known as the black-footed rock-wallaby). There have been only two surveys over previous decades, the last being in the 1990s. No one actually knows much of their current status. The Nyikina and Mangala native title area encompasses most of the habitat where it’s believed this population may still exist.
The people of Nyikina and Mangala country have been busy working on country for the conservation of culture and environment. In December 2011 they published their Natural and Cultural Heritage plan, ‘Mardoowarra Wila Booroo’. Most recently in the Edgar Ranges, right on the edge of the Great Sandy Desert, the ranger teams were successful in capturing remote sensor camera images of this rare rock-wallaby.
With a narrowing margin before the wet season ‘build-up’ would make conditions impossible, we set up a bush camp just beyond the community of Jarlmadangah. Tucked in against the cragged red cliffs of the sprawling Grant Ranges, I laid my swag beneath the arms of the larrgadiy tree (the boab, Adansonia gregorii) and at night I gazed up through its outstretched arms toward the spinning celestial field beset by the jagged cliff line silhouettes. With the after-hours antics of the young music-loving rangers curtailed for the night* the bliss of the aural landscape of a thousand years quietly returns. In the humming darkness I feel the occasional trailing passage of unidentified invertebrates across my bare skin. I sleep safe within a treasured landscape.
(* One of the more humorous songs I heard the fellas playing one night was a local version of the Men At Work song, Down Under, which started with ‘Tra-ve-lling in brand new troopie….’. Yep, no ‘fried out Kombies’ out on country in the Kimberley, that’s for sure. You wouldn’t get very far in those.)
With WWF species conservation manager, Kath Howard, guiding the teams in the scat collection methods, we’d set off from camp daily before sunrise (around 05:00 – 05:30 hours) to get a few hours of work in before it was too hot. Terrence ‘Boonya’ Marshall, (Nyikina-Mangala Ranger Coordinator) and Phil Palmer (Working on Country Program Manager from the Kimberley Land Council) both know this land intimately and they lead the way along rough station tracks, over Acacia and spinifex plains and across dry creek beds to get us to the base of the glowing cliffs: their pre-dawn beauty belies the rising thermal gradients that await us.
“Errr…Chris and Kath! You gotta copy?” comes Boonya’s low booming tones over the staticky UHF radio handset. “Big hole on yer right.” his dry wit and capacity for understatement duly matching this pre-wet season landscape.
We bump through the ruts, glad for Boonya’s well-timed interventions and arrive at the base of more unsurveyed cliff lines – so much potential habitat.
“They’ve gotta be here!”, both Kath and I think out loud as we enter the wallaby frame of mind.
By mid-late morning ambient temperatures are sweltering in the low to mid 40s. And with our scat-counting traverses taking us up against the solar heated red rocks, our actual ‘heat experience’ is probably much closer to somewhere in the very high 40s!
Later in the morning I’m walking again with Bayden, Conan and Ashton, trying to find a way up and out of the tall lemon-scented grass tussocks of a dry river bed snaking along a dusty cliff line not far from an ensconced waterhole. We’ve just heard the rustle and gallop of a feral pig in the distance and so we’re all slightly on edge. I’m leading the way. We’re in single file. Suddenly the squealing and grunting is right upon me. I stop dead frozen in my tracks and stare down the face of the lumbering black pig as it shoots out from the cliff-base boulder fields. Its tusks bared, I momentarily consider my impalement, as the feral beast turns abruptly at my feet and belts off in a squall of dust. I slowly turn and see the shock and awe on the faces of my companions. Wide eyes greet each other and we then fall into obligatory laughter, each of us pointing at the other as if their reaction was the most foolhardy.
But our relieved banter is cut short by a sudden rising stench.
“Aww man! What is that smell?” I cry. I never knew the feral pig was so gross, their pungent stench almost unbearable in this heat. “Let’s get outta here!”
Despite the present incentive to escape the fetid pall, we move tentatively forward in the direction of the marauding animal, trying not to breathe and still looking for a pathway onto the cliffs and terraces above us – safe from the pig and into the vertiginous world of the rock- wallaby. As the scare dissipates I ponder the destruction these animals cause, particularly the havoc they wreak upon the precious waterholes and the wetter gorge system oases.
At around 10:30 each morning we’d knock off and head to the nearest cooling waterhole and riparian shade, avoiding open sandy areas on our way across the plains. Under the extreme temperatures the baking plains expand and the massive sand soils become more internally unstable, increasing the potential for getting dry bogged – and dry bogged we did get at times!
In the billabong the rangers taught me how to collect the fresh-water mussels. Up to our heads in the water, and with a careful eye on the couple of juvenile fresh water crocodiles hanging in the water column not far away, we’d search in the oozing mud with nimble toes, and then dive down to retrieve them. Over a make-shift fire we cooked them up and swallowed their silt-laden flavours.
When temperatures had dipped slightly from the early afternoon peak, we’d strike out from our oasis and head back to the cliffs for a couple more hours of scat surveying.
Looking for scats, or droppings, is useful means of detecting the presence of a species with minimal disturbance to the animals themselves. Using the size and shape of the scats from the central Avon wheatbelt population* (Petrogale lateralis lateralis) as a guide we’d painstakingly search on exposed cliff ledges and rocky platforms for their presence. Scats found in caves and under overhangs away from the drying effects of constant daily sunlight were ignored as these could remain ‘fresh-looking’ for months. And we were keen to find recent scats as a means of determining the presence of rock-wallabies in these rocky ranges. At the same time we noted any evidence of feral animals and opportunistic sightings of other native animals.
(* WWF is currently working with government and community partners to effect the conservation of the precariously placed central Avon wheatbelt population of the black-flanked rock-wallaby.)
Image: Black-flanked rock-wallaby scats (droppings) found on the Central Avon wheatbelt granite outcrops. Scats from the same species can vary in size and shape due to different diets or the size of the individual animal. © Kath Howard / WWF-Aus
By the end of the tiring first day on the slopes it was apparent that the wallabies’ diet, which at times seemed to include the lush fruit of the rock fig trees, and the different biophysical conditions in which they lived, was challenging us to be able to accurately recognise what we were looking for.
On dusk one evening clambering back down with effervescent ranger John, we ran into another surveying pair, rangers Conan and Ashton. They said that they’d just sighted a black-flanked rock-wallaby. There was much excitement from John and me and when Conan and Ashton pointed to the ledge upon which they’d spotted the well-balanced macropod, I was instantly taken by the nature of this so-called ledge – more a steep sloping bulge jutting out from the sheer cliff! Only the black-flanked rock-wallaby could rest upon such a ‘ledge’ – their tail, which is about the same length as their body, providing them great counter-balancing powers, not to mention their phenomenal leathery gripping feet.
Image: View from within a cave, Grant Ranges, Nyikina and Mangala Native Title © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
Back at camp there is much celebration at the news. And some rangers discuss plans to set up remote sensor cameras in the vicinity of the sighting.
In the evenings with temperatures subsiding to a tolerable 28 degrees Celsius, Kath painstakingly goes through the day’s collection bags of scats, all labelled with their map coordinates and a habitat class rating number.
“Those ones are definitely fresh, but they’re too big and rounded, they’re from a different macropod – probably a euro,” says Kath, putting the bag to one side.
“But you see this one,” she ponders, “it looks like a rock-wallaby’s – longer and more cylindrical, with a pointed tip on one end. But the fig-based diet makes them brown, not black – check out all the seeds in there! It does make it harder to be certain it’s a recent dropping.”
Kath records the locations of the rock-wallaby scats and those of other species of interest such as echidna. She keeps some scats that are unidentifiable in the field. Her intention is to consult with zoologists back in Perth who have direct experience with surveys of this population nearly twenty years ago. Some will be sent to a lab and taken apart to look for hairs that the animal has swallowed while grooming themselves, which will allow us to make a positive species identification. The region has been so little surveyed – who knows what we might find!
Image: Kath Howard (WWF) discusses Fitzroy River bird sightings with Nyikina-Mangala ranger coordinator, Terrence ‘Boonya’ Marshall, Fitzroy floodplain © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
Driving back in the troopie one evening I asked young Bayden, a resident of Pandanus Park community, why it was that he opted to join the Indigenous ranger organisation.
“There’s nothin’ better than bein’ on country. I’m learning more about myself. And I’m realising how true it is what our elders teach me.” And then with a wry smile that soon cracks wide open and white, he adds “And besides, there’s too much humbug back in town too you know!”
Back out on that ancient dissected plateau, Bayden and I are still on a long traverse. Scats are fewer on this particular trajectory. We’ve come to the top of our line. I stoop to pick up a rock that’s attracted my attention. It’s a tanned and rust-stained piece of meta-sediment, with a raised capillary-like network of criss-crossed veins, almost as if the courser silicate sands have been etched away by dissolving acids. Bayden takes one quick look at it and says it reminds him of one of those Chinese character ink stamps. He’s right. The raised vertical blade-like veins make a series of sweeping brush strokes, as if a sino-calligraphist had been at work in these venerable rocks. The photo I took is on my wall at home now, a tangible reminder for me of Bayden’s acute sense of landscape pattern recognition. And his uncanny ability to reach distant lands in his metaphorical description of his own.
Image: Bayden Rivers (left) and Chris Curnow (WWF) teamed up during the recent Nyikina-Mangala Rangers, WWF and Kimberley Land Council’s black-flanked rock-wallaby survey of the Grant Ranges, West Kimberley © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus
After ten days in the Kimberley I’m not ready to head south. Kimberley time and place has got the better of me. But both Tanya Vernes (WWF’s Kimberley Program Manager) and Kath Howard are pleased with the results. As too is Terrence:
‘We’ve been doing heaps of wildlife surveying on our country. It’s good to know that we might still have the black-flanked rock-wallaby around these parts’
Image: The Nyikina-Mangala ranger crew, proudly displaying their scat collection bags, Grant Ranges, October 2012. Standing L-R: Phil Palmer (Working On Country Program Manager, Kimberley Lands Council), Chris Curnow (WWF), Joharn Hunter, Ashton Lockyer, Conan Lee, Josh Marshall, Bayden Rivers, Joshua Albert, Kath Howard (WWF), John Albert. Kneeling/seated L-R: Mr Terrence ‘Boonya’ Marshall (Nyikina-Mangala Ranger Coordinator) and Ned Evans © Chris Curnow / WWF-Aus