A close encounter of the furry kind

By John Pickrell 7 November 2013
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Absurdly cute, rotund and furry, the quokka is a much loved marsupial resident of WA’s Rottnest Island.

AG’s deputy editor takes a trip to southwest WA and reports back on some of the natural wonders worth checking out next time you find yourself near Perth.

ABSURDLY CUTE, ROTUND AND furry, the quokka is a much loved marsupial resident of WA’s Rottnest Island. Quokkas were once abundant across the southwest corner of WA, but following the arrival of Europeans — and particularly foxes in the early 1900s — numbers went into freefall.

Though they are present in a few small and scattered populations on the mainland, quokkas have one remaining stronghold on Rottnest, 19 km off the coast of Perth. Through careful management as an A-Class nature reserve, Rottnest Island has acted as an island ark for the species, allowing the population there to boom. There are now typically between 8000 and 12,000 quokkas on Rottnest, depending on the availability of food and water.

On the second day of a trip to WA, I’m lucky enough to get a tour of the island from park ranger Andy Hodgkins who gives me a bit of background about the species.

Rottnest was separated from the mainland around 7000 years ago as sea levels rose, and many of the native species disapeared after this time. The quokka (Setonix brachyurus) is the only land mammal on the island — though the white-striped mastiff bat and the the New Zealand fur seal are also residents. In 1696, seafaring dutchman and one of the first European visitors, Willem de Vlamingh, described the quokka as “a kind of rat as big as a common cat.” He named the island Rotte nest, meaning rat’s nest.

During our tour, Andy bends down in the scrubby foliage to swipe some banana peel dropped by tourists off a couple of quokkas which are nibbling it. The thing that strikes me is how remarkably tame these wild animals are. They scarcely react to being handled, which is useful for doing health check-ups, but seems a recipe for disaster for the long-term wellbeing of the species.

“If you had a look at the ones around the settlement here, you’d certainly think that they were terrible in a natural environment because they have no fear factor of people,” Andy tells me. “But the two main reasons for the decline of the mainland population are loss of habitat and the introduction of cats and dogs and foxes. They just don’t naturally have a predator like any of these species.”

In 2005 the last cat on the island was trapped, and foxes never made it here, so the outlook at least for the quokkas on Rottnest is good.

The questions left in my mind is: wouldn’t Rottnest be the ideal place to ship some other dwindling and endangered marsupials? With only one land mammal, it seems like there are some ecological roles to be filled.

Australian Geographic
would like to thank the Rottnest Island Authority and Rottnest Eco Adventures for a tour of the island.

See some videos of the quokka here.