Eastern quolls given a second chance

By Allison Garoza 11 June 2015
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Eastern quolls may be extinct from the mainland, but at Secret Creek, one conservationist is trying to change that

INSIDE A LONG building at the bottom of a valley, the next generation of a threatened species draws its first breath.

The eastern quoll has been extinct from mainland Australia for nearly 50 years. Threats such as deforestation, predation by foxes, and disease brought by cats has left the only wild, though fairly healthy, populations of eastern quolls in Tasmania.

Trevor Evans, owner and operator of Secret Creek Sanctuary and co-founder of the Australian Ecosystems Foundation, has been breeding a captive population in the Blue Mountains for 14 years.

His hope is to release eastern quolls (Dasyurus viverrinus) to their former range on the mainland. Trevor, the 2010 Australian Geographic Conservationist of the Year, is a tall guy with a big heart who left his coal mining background to become a full-time conservationist. He cares greatly for these little known creatures, and is excited for the upcoming breeding season, hoping it will result in a healthy new generation of young quolls, which he calls quittens.

Eastern quolls, one of four Australian quoll species, are a carnivorous marsupial that look a bit like a large squirrel with very sharp teeth. Spots are present on their fawn or black coats, though their tails are spot-free. Related to Tasmanian devils, they eat insects and small mammals such as rats and mice.

They have great eyesight and hearing, powerful jaws and sharp claws, and are terrible at maths.

During the breeding season a pair will (impressively) mate every 15 minutes for three days straight. The female will go on to give birth to about 30 young. She only has six nipples, though, so the babies — about the size of a grain of wheat — are thrown into their first fight for survival. The six fastest attach to nipples, and the others perish.

Trevor says the quittens’ odds don’t end there. “When too big for the pouch, they’ll catch a ride on their mum’s back and she teaches them how to hunt, which is when some babies get lost. So out of 30, usually only two babies survive in the wild.”

These aren’t great odds, especially since eastern quolls only live for three years. They breed their first two years and then they die. In their lifetime an eastern quoll may have only four offspring survive. At Secret Creek they have a higher success rate of six quittens per litter, of which Trevor is understandably proud: “It’s very important that we breed them every year to continue the population to make sure that the species does survive.”

In bushland, trees have stretched from seed to the canopy without ever shading the footsteps of an eastern quoll. Trevor hopes that in the next two years this will change. “They’re a very effective hunter but they’re also missing from our environment,” he says. “These are an animal that need to come back.”

With the help of the Australian Ecosystems Foundation, Trevor is finding suitable sites for the quolls’ eventual release. “Even though they haven’t been seen for 50 years on the mainland I think it’s important that we try and keep some habitat for animals that we’d like to re-release in the future,” he says. “The effort here is to obviously save them so that my grandkids get to see them and your grandkids get to see them and hopefully they’ll be back in the wild very soon.”

If you’d like to see these quolls and meet other native animals Trevor is working to conserve, you can book a tour through the Secret Creek Cafe and Restaurant, or find volunteer and donation opportunities through www.ausecosystems.org.au.