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Missing Mammals - Australia's vanishing herit -

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Missing Mammals - Australia's vanishing heritage

Reporter: Mark Horstman

13 September 2007

One third of the mammals that have disappeared from the world in the last 400 years have been from

Unfortunately, new evidence suggests that this unparalleled extinction rate is more than a
historical footnote. A wave of extinction that peaked in the central deserts fifty years ago now
seems to be rolling through the tropical north.

The numbers of at least ten nocturnal mammals - such as the brushtail possum, the golden-backed
tree-rat, and the quoll - are now in rapid decline, even in Northern Australia.

Mark Horstman joins scientists and Aboriginal rangers in one of the most remote corners of Arnhem
Land to search for one of them - the elusive Golden Bandicoot.


Narration: In the last two hundred years, the deserts of arid Australia have lost more mammal
species than anywhere else on the planet.

Now scientists fear that even more are on the brink of extinction.

The crisis is spreading to the tropical north.

Ian Morris: We are pretty worried because all indications point to the fact that we're losing a lot
of our small native mammals from the woodlands of North Australia.

Narration: Emblematic of this loss is the Golden Bandicoot. Once widespread throughout mainland
Australia, its range has shrunk to only two small islands.

And it's not the only one. At least 10 secretive, nocturnal mammals are also vanishing from these
landscapes. One explanation may be that uncontrolled wildfires have replaced Aboriginal patch

Lirrwa Ganambar: In the old times, bandicoots and possums were fairly common in this area. Nowadays
with changes in fire and other things, those same animals are a lot thinner on the ground.

Ian Morris: It's very difficult for us to know exactly what's causing that, and it's probably a
combination of all sorts of negative factors.

Narration: That combination is the mystery that Mark Ziembicki is trying to solve.

Mark Ziembicki: What we're trying to do here is map the distribution of animals across Northern
Australia and get an idea of when the declines have happened.

Narration: In the back of his ute, Mark has a novel way to tap into Aboriginal knowledge about the

Mark Ziembicki: I reckon I've probably been to about 28 communities by foot, by plane, by boat, by
car, by all sorts of means.

Narration: We're joining him on this trip to a remote corner of north-east Arnhem land, the Napier

Mark Ziembicki: The biodiversity aspects of Arnhem land are fabulous compared to a lot of places.
There are problems here, there are feral animals.

Look, there's a pig!

Narration: We're teaming up with Ian Morris, a naturalist whose knowledge of Yolngu law and
language allows him to cross the cultural divide.

Ian Morris: I've always enjoyed the enthusiasm that Aboriginal people have for the bush and talking
about animals in the landscape.

Narration: We're visiting the small community of Mapurru, where there's plenty of interest in the
contents of Mark's ute.

Mark Ziembicki: The kids, it's a bit of a muppet show for them, so they love it, so they're all in
awe, and you know they've never seen these animals themselves, their parents have probably talked
to them about these animals or their grandparents have told them stories.

It's invaluable to have a resource like this because people don't relate to photos as readily as
they do having the actual animal in their hand, and this is really the next best thing to having
the live animal.

Narration: This is the Northern Brown Bandicoot.

Mark Ziembicki: Do you all know that one?

Kids: Wan'gurra!

Narration: While it's been seen around here, its smaller golden cousin remains elusive.

Ian Morris: What sort of place do you find him in?

Stephen: We find him in hollow log.

Mark Ziembicki: The golden bandicoot was probably one of the most widespread species in Australia
that has actually crashed. It's actually reflective of what's happened on a bigger scale.

Narration: Feral animals are part of the reason why. It's no coincidence that many of the missing
mammals are snack size for a cat.

Mark Horstman: It's mammals like these that have been disappearing from Northern Australia,
particularly in the last 20 to 30 years. But if anyone's likely to see one alive, it's people
living in remote communities.

Narration: Because here, they're more than just wildlife, they're totems to Yolngu people.

Their detailed knowledge provides crucial evidence for the scientists.

Mark Ziembicki: What's this one called?

Group: Djotji! (Northern Nailtail Wallaby).

Mark Ziembicki: We don't know this one very well from this area, and if you've seen this one here
before, that's interesting.

Roslyn: Yeah, he's got that funny jump...

Narration: Eighty kilometres away as the cockatoo flies is the end of an island chain stretching
out to sea from the Napier Peninsula.

It's called Marchinbar Island.This is the last place in Australia where the Golden Bandicoot is

A month before we arrived, senior ranger Lirrwa Ganambar led a survey team to check on the

Lirrwa Ganambar: There are lots of bandicoots on Marchinbar. In the mornings in the traps, it's not
uncommon to get seven or eight animals, and their tracks are all over the place. The evidence is
clear that they're quite abundant.

Narration: And as his home video shows, they're breeding, which is good news for an endangered

Now the rangers have left the island refuge, they're setting up traps in different habitats along
the Napier Peninsula. If we find a golden bandicoot here it will be the first one found on the NT
mainland in more than thirty years. Ian Morris is optimistic.

Ian Morris: The quickest way for me to find out how healthy an ecosystem is to use my ears, and we
see and hear birds like the red goshawk here. The red goshawk today is one of Australia's rarest
raptors, and they're in good numbers here on Napier Peninsula, that straight away tells you that
the food chain is in good order because the red goshawks are right up the top there, depending on
other wildlife to survive. Virtually everything we've looked at here is in good numbers, that's why
we're so hopeful that the golden bandicoot may also exist on this bit of mainland.

Mark Horstman:: This is a well-known backyard for the locals but for science it's an unknown
frontier. We're heading out on one of the very first mammal surveys in this area to find out what
lives here.

Narration: The coastline of the Peninsula is very similar to the bandicoot habitat on Marchinbar
Island. On a tip-off from traditional owners, the rangers start laying their traps here.

Mark Horstman: So if you're going to find them anywhere on the mainland...

Ian Morris: That's it, they're going to be here if anywhere.

Narration: That night, the air is cold and the moon is full. Maybe that's why next morning, the
only thing in the traps is disappointment.

Mark Ziembicki: We put 120 traps out last night and we haven't got anything so far. We expected to
get something. If not obviously the golden bandicoot, then some of the other species that are found

Narration: Perhaps it's more evidence that mammals are disappearing.

After three nights of trapping, all we find are some tantalising tracks.

Mark Horstman: Who are these footprints from, Lirrwa?

Lirrwa Ganambar: That's maybe Wan'gurra, golden bandicoot.

Mark Ziembicki: Those two legs together like that one there, that's like a Wan'gurra? That gives us

Lirrwa Ganambar: Yo.

Mark Horstman: There's hope there. The last trace of a little footprint eh?

Mark Ziembicki: That's all we've found so far.

Narration: As Lirrwa says: small tracks, big story. The mystery of the missing mammals remains to
be solved. The best chance is if Aboriginal people and scientists continue to work together.

Mark Ziembicki: These declines in mammals and other animals have happened in parallel with the
removal of people from the land, and I think fundamentally that's a really important thing.

We've still got a chance to make a difference.

Mark Horstman: Not too late yet?

Mark Ziembicki: Not too late yet.