Endangered numbat populations in Australia are making a comeback post-drought

By Ashmeeta Subra 12 March 2024

Half a decade after a species decline, reintroduced populations of numbats appear to be increasing within the lower Murray Darling Basin wildlife sanctuaries.

Distinguished by its vivid rusty orange and grey-black fur, the numbat is a small, diurnal Australian mammal that was once widespread across arid and semi-arid southern Australia. Due to habitat loss and introduced predators such as cats and foxes leading to its decline, only two naturally occurring populations are left in the southwestern part of Western Australia. 

Numbat searching for termintes (Image: Alexandra Ross/Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

The numbat was absent in the Murray Darling Basin for more than a century, and was first reintroduced in 1993 at Yookamurra Wildlife Sanctuary, followed by populations at Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in 1999, and Mallee Cliffs National Park in 2020. These sanctuaries, enclosed in feral predator-free fenced areas, play a crucial role in protecting reintroduced species from predators like feral cats and foxes. 

In partnership with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, 15 individuals had been released in 2020, followed by another 31 in 2021 and 2022. 

When the Murray Darling region experienced its severest drought condition five years ago, numbat sightings among the Yookamurra population dropped from an estimated 52 individuals in 2017 to 25 in 2018, while Scotia’s population fell from an estimated 620 to 133, and 83 in 2019.  

Fortunately, recent surveys at Yookamurra and Scotia sanctuaries show promising results as wetter weather conditions and vegetation regrowth help to improve the small insectivore's status. At present, Yookamurra’s population is estimated at 42 individuals (the highest since the drought), while Scotia's population also increased to 287 individuals, more than doubling since 2019.   

Dr Alexandra Ross, Australia Wildlife Conservancy's Acting Regional Ecologist, expressed excitement about the rebounding Yookamurra population.  

“The low number was a bit concerning, so we decided to resurvey the species in January, and were relieved when we saw multiple individuals almost daily,” said Dr Ross in a press release.  

To survey numbats, researchers drive along specific areas inside the predator-proof fence, inspecting them twice a day. The best time to do so is about 30 minutes after sunrise when the temperature hits at least 11 degrees and again around sunset.  

Dr. Rachel Ladd, AWC's Senior Wildlife Ecologist at Scotia emphasised that while surveying daytime-active species at the sanctuary can be challenging, biodiversity monitoring is a crucial aspect in effective conservation.  

Visit the following link to learn more about the ACW’s conservation work with numbats.

Photos supplied by Australian Wildlife Conservancy (Photographers: Belinda Howe and Alexandra Ross)

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Ashmeeta Subra
With background in international relations and marketing communications, Ashmeeta is excited to use her skills to encourage positive environmental actions through Planet Ark. She believes that by taking small actions, we can help make a big difference and be good stewards of our planet. Outside of work, she loves spending time in nature and enjoying downtime at the beach.