A wombat subspecies unique to Bass Strait’s lungtalanana Island, off Tasmania’s northern coast, could be the first native animal to be returned under an innovative vision to “rewild” a whole island.
The Bass Strait Island wombat and at least six other species wiped out by invasive predators, land clearing and catastrophic bushfires can be re-established on the Aboriginal-owned, 8230-hectare lungtalanana, previously known as Clarke Island, in the Bass Strait.
The project is being led by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre, and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, in collaboration with The University of Tasmania.
lungtalanana is part of the Furneaux group of islands in the Bass Strait, which are in fact the mountain remnants of the land bridge which, more than 10,000 years ago, allowed you to walk from Victoria to Tasmania.
WWF-Australia Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes Darren Grover said wombats are incredible animals.
“They’re very, very charismatic. They have their own personality that only wombats can have, like being little bulldozers, and they play really important ecosystem roles.
“They dig and they scratch. They burrow, which means that water and nutrients can get deep down into the soils.
“They’re also spreading seed, they’re spreading fungal spores, which are really important,” Mr Grover added.
The Bass Strait Island wombat is a crucial ecosystem engineer, Mr Grover believes.
“Its digging increases nutrient turnover and water penetration, spreads seeds and fungal spores, and its burrows provide safe havens for other species, particularly during fires.
“They play a bit of a lifesaving role. We saw this from the Black Summer bushfires. Smaller wildlife will use the wombat burrows as a place to get away from the danger of the fires and survive,” Mr Grover added.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre spokesperson Andry Sculthorpe said lungtalanana may look ruggedly beautiful but Indigenous visitors sense the land isn’t healthy.
“Returning animals that belong here will help lungtalanana to heal,” he said.
Along with the Bass Strait Island wombat, the Bennett’s wallaby and the short-beaked echidna could also be released onto the island.
Just as critical as the return of the animals to the island, is the return of cultural burning.
“Cultural burning reduced fuel loads. The loss of these practices has been devastating, contributing to the 2014 bushfire, which burnt more than 80 per cent of the island,” Mr Sculthorpe said.
“That has led to the island being in a state of regrowth which is unbalanced with a proliferation of woody species.
“Cultural burning will recreate a diversity of vegetation communities and ages, providing habitat and food for the animals we return and reducing the severity of any future bushfires.
“Country needs people and it needs animals too,” Mr Sculthorpe added.
“We’re not returning just a single species to a small patch of habitat, we want to rewild the entire island ecosystem,” Mr Grover added.
Mr Grover said animals such as the Bass Strait Island wombat, Bennett’s wallaby, and short-beaked echidna will contribute to a well-functioning island ecosystem.
“This is also about a cultural connection. It’s about Tasmanian Aboriginal people getting back onto their lands and returning the wildlife, which has so much cultural importance for them, so it’s an exciting project and WWF is proud to be involved.
“Success here will provide a stepping-stone to rewilding other, larger islands. We can then take lessons learnt to the mainland,” Mr Grover added.
Mr Sculthorpe said the rewilding project will create opportunities for young Aboriginal people to get involved in an interesting area of science and caring for Country.
Five young Indigenous rangers who recently visited lungtalanana are excited by the prospect of restoring the island and spoke about how strengthening their connection to Country enriches their lives.
“Everything plays its own part in the ecosystem so putting animals like wombats, potoroos, and wallabies back on the island would be a great thing to do. It’s healing Country and looking after Aboriginal land,” David Lowery said.
“This is where my ancestors are from. I’m back here on the same Country as they walked thousands of years ago. It means so much to bring back the same practices they carried out for thousands of years,” Kulai Sculthorpe said.
“Becoming a Pakana ranger changed my life in a big way. Being around community gave me support and encouragement and I haven’t looked back,” Brenton Brown said.
“When I’m back home in the city it’s easy to feel stressed about things. When I’m out in Country it’s different. I get to do cultural stuff, fix the landscape and help animals. I feel really good,” Baden Maynard said.
“A lot of the Eucalyptus globulus (Tasmanian blue gum) have died out. We hope to collect and germinate seeds of various plant species and recreate biodiversity. Our tussock grasses have evolved to benefit from fire. Cultural burning will put nitrogen back into the soil, improve the grasslands and provide food for returned animals,” Brendan Lowery added.
The rewilding of the Bass Strait wombat is a $1.5 million project.
“WWF will contribute $339,000 in a signal that rewilding has become a prominent part of our Regenerate Australia Program,” Mr Grover added.