There were thought to be only 1300 numbats left in Western Australia but a new study that closely examined their stripes estimates the remaining natural population of the endangered species, the state’s faunal emblem, is actually twice as large.
About 500 of the banded anteaters were thought to live in the Upper Warren region – a 140,000 hectare area of jarrah forest some 300 kilometres south-east of Perth.
But a paper recently published in the CSIRO’s Wildlife Research journal puts this figure closer to 1900.
It makes the forest the number one stronghold for the cryptic creature, one of Australia’s two strictly dirunal – an animal which is active during the daytime – marsupials.
The new finding means combined populations of the Upper Warren together with the recently created Dryandra Woodland National Park – a 17,870 hectare reserve near Narrogin – are understood to be closer to 2700.
Numbats once existed across the southern parts of Australia but the two sites are the only places left with naturally occurring populations.
Not all wildlife refuges are equal. While the Dryandra Woodland is protected from industries like mining because of its national park status, the Upper Warren – which has a larger number of numbats – is a mismatch of state forest, national park and conservation reserve leaving some of it open to mineral exploration.
The Upper Warren is also home to several other endangered and threatened species like woylies, western ringtail possums, chuditch, quendas, brush-tailed phascogale, water rats, quokkas and two rare wallabies.
There is growing recognition of the area’s significance for rare species and WA Environment Minister Reece Whitby, who recently visited the region, has indicated he would be looking at strengthening conservation measures.
It is promising to hear the numbat population there is doing well and bigger than first thought, Whitby said.
I visited recently and it was very clear to me this is an extremely important conservation area.
Following our decision to ban native logging – which will be critical to maintaining biodiversity and forest health – I am keen to look at further protection for the area to ensure it remains a stronghold for the numbat and other endangered animals.
Greens MP Brad Pettitt said it was vital its habitats received the highest protection available to the state.
After all the Numbat is WA’s state emblem, he said.
Designating the areas around Perup in the Upper Warren area, like recently occurred with the Dryandra Woodland National Park, would be a significant step towards offering this important species a more certain future.
Scientists usually use non-lethal traps to catch small mammals but UWA PhD student Sian Thorn, who authored the new study on numbat numbers sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, said the stripey animal was too tricky for that.
They’re just so cryptic, she said.
They’re hard to see in the wild and they only eat termites, so you can’t bait them. They won’t go into conventional cage trapping methods.
Instead, Thorn and a team of researchers found they could model the density of the Upper Warren numbats by examining their stripes as captured by Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction camera traps placed in five locations.
The cameras could be left running all day and with home ranges of 25 to 50 hectares there were always numbats running by and triggering photos.
They were able to identify individual numbats from their unique stripe patterns and then model the size of the Upper Warren’s total population.
We had an idea that there was a pretty decent population there, Thorn said It’s always great when you’re working on a species there’s not a lot of and you find there is more.
The camera trap data dated back from 2016 and 2017 and Thorn said she wanted to figure out the best way to set up the cameras to use them as a tool in the future to monitor numbat numbers.
Thorn said despite getting a better idea of how many numbats were left, the population was still very small.
But authorities are confident the Upper Warren will be a place for rare species to thrive thanks to its fox and cat control programs.
The Departments senior research scientist Adrian Wayne, in a video with Whitby, said there was so much space in the region for the numbats to live long and prosperous lives.
For the last 20 years we thought the number of numbats was less than 1000, but just in this once place . . . we’ve got more than 1000 to 2000 and they’ve got room to grow as our fox control and our cat control expand, he said.
I can’t think of another place in Australia where you can see so many threatened species in such abundance.
A prescribed burn in March last year burned at a higher intensity in some areas than anticipated prompting community concerns numbats had been killed.
A Department spokesman said it was continuing to conduct post-burn poison baiting.
There have also been sightings of numbats in the Weinup area since the burn was completed, he said.
These sightings have been through DBCA monitoring cameras or by reliable eye-witness accounts.
In addition to numbats, there have been several recordings of woylies and tammar wallabies, plus individual sightings of quenda, brush tailed wallaby and phascogale.