Creation of modern-day ark begins on WA island

By Fleur Bainger 24 October 2016
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Dirk Hartog Island in Western Australia is about to undergo one of the biggest eco-restorations in the world.

TWO THREATENED SPECIES will be returned to a remote Western Australian island next August, in what’s set to become one of the world’s most important mammal sanctuaries.

Dirk Hartog Island, in World Heritage Listed Shark Bay, is the location of the biggest feral eradication project in Australia.

Thousands of goats, cats and sheep have been cleared from the outpost. Once eradication is confirmed, 12 threatened and endangered species will be reintroduced to the 63,000-hectare isle.

“As far as eco-restoration, recovering vegetation and recovering animals, it’s arguably the biggest eco-restoration in the world,” said John Asher, manager of the Dirk Hartog Island National Park Ecological Restoration Project, also known as ‘Return to 1616’.

Related feature: Dirk Hartog Island: Land, rediscovered

The $16.3 million project – for which an additional $28.1 million has just been approved – began in 2012 and will run for more than two decades. It aims to return the landform to the state in which Dutch explorer Dirk Hartog found it, when he accidentally discovered the island 400 years ago.

The trade ship captain happened across the unmapped coastline on 25 October 1616, becoming the first European to set food on Western Australian shores.

“There were 13 species when Dirk Hartog arrived; three are still there. Ten are to be reintroduced,” said John.

thick billed grasswren

The thick-billed grasswren (Amytornis textilis) is one of the species to be reintroduced onto Dirk Hartog Island. (Image: sunphlo / Wikimedia)

An additional two species, the threatened rufous and banded-hare wallabies, will be translocated from neighbouring Bernier and Dore Islands in a trial next year.

A 13km fence splits the island in half, and Department of Parks and Wildlife staff believe the southern section is feral-free.

“A reintroduction of 10 of each of those two species is planned for Auguse 2017,” said John. “It’s conditional on the cats remaining absent south of the fence. It won’t proceed if we find any evidence of them.”

If successful, a series of reintroductions will occur every year until 2024, with species including the western barred bandicoot, the greater stick-nest rat, the thick-billed grasswren and the woylie returning to the isle.

VIDEO: Aerial footage of beautiful Dirk Hartog Island. (Credit: Andrew Gregory)

Dirk Hartog is WA’s largest island and sits at the most western point of Australia. In June this year, sheep were officially declared as being eradicated from the island. In the same month, 3000km of aerial monitoring detected no goats other than collared goats left there as part of the culling strategy.

The Parks and Wildlife cat team recently completed its first comprehensive monitoring program, kicking off eight surveys running seasonally until mid-2018, covering both sides of the fence.

“They go for 10 days each time. It’s a pretty arduous and hard job,” explained John. “They check all the roads, tracks and beaches that are accessible… There are very few if any cats left, but we will establish that through the monitoring. Every time we do another program, it will give us more confidence, and by the end of 2018 we can say for sure that the cats have been eradicated.”

RELATED GALLERY: Discover Dirk Hartog Island

The successful clearing of all introduced species will hail a major environmental achievement. “This is world-class. Across Australia, this is the biggest island where goats will have been eradicated, when we achieve that. The next biggest is Santiago Island in the Galapagos,” said John.

“It’ll be the biggest island in the world regarding cat eradication. The next biggest is Macquarie Island.”

The Return to 1616 leader said the result will be immensely beneficial for Shark Bay. “It enhances the World Heritage area. Part of the UNESCO values are to improve the habitat and animal species. Another value is the visual amenity of the area, and returning native vegetation will improve that.”

“People can also feel the history with Dirk Hartog and Vlamingh, Dampier, Bauden, Freycinet, Denham and other explorers all stopping in there. Bird watchers can go over, because the seabird populations will pick up, and the three threatened wrens will also pick up. It’ll be quite an amazing place.”