view gallery Numbats were once widespread across southern and central Australia, but now there are only about 1000 left in the wild. Juveniles (pictured) are the most vulnerable to cats and foxes. Image Credit: Robert McLean

Numbat force

  • BY Jane Hammond |
  • April 18, 2016

A group of numbat lovers has come to the rare marsupial’s rescue in a pocket of south-western WA.

AT FIRST GLANCE, Robert McLean seems an unlikely conservationist. A meat-truck driver by day, he’s a bloke who loves steak, beer and thongs. But most weekends you won’t catch him putting his feet up watching the footy or imbibing the amber fluid at the pub. Instead you’ll find him deep in the Dryandra Woodland on the frontline of a battle to save Western Australia’s faunal emblem from extinction.

Robert’s passions are photography and numbats, and he has successfully combined the two into a constructive obsession. On weekends he heads inland, driving for several hours from his coastal home to the Dryandra conservation area 170km south-east of Perth, to find and photograph numbats. His unusual hobby has led him to form a strong bond with three other unlikely conservationists: airline worker Sean Van Alphen; power-company employee Matthew Willett; and John Lawson, caretaker of the Lions Dryandra Woodland Village and former stonemason. The group met on individual searches for the elusive creature after bumping into one another while following the network of old logging tracks that criss-cross Dryandra.

VIDEO: The numbats' last stand

Together they formed the Numbat Task Force, initially to lobby for protection for the numbat from feral cat predation. But when plans were announced to site a major rubbish tip just 6km from Dryandra, McLean says it was “all hands on deck” in a campaign to save the creatures. The four friends set up a Facebook page and now post every shot they can of the numbats captured on their cameras. Their efforts have managed to overturn a decision by the state’s Environmental Protection Authority not to assess the tip proposal. It was a significant victory for the team, assisted by local WA Greens MP Lynn MacLaren, and means the potential impact of the waste facility on Dryandra will now be examined by the environmental watchdog.

It’s hard work finding numbats and it takes patience and perseverance. In the years that the four men have been photographing the small marsupials, they have seen the numbers in Dryandra plummet from more than 600 in the early 1990s to fewer than 50 today. “If the tip gets the go-ahead then the numbats won’t stand a chance. The tip will attract feral cats and it won’t take them long to move into this area,” says Robert, who’s worried that cats will wipe out the population.

Numbats are adventurous and at times seemingly ignore the presence of people as they dig the forest floor in search of the 20,000 termites they need to eat every day. It is this apparent disregard for danger that puts them on a collision course with voracious feral cats. “Numbats are the clowns of the forest,” Robert tells me as we drive at “numbat pace” through the woodland, keeping watch for the diurnal creatures. “They are like meerkats on steroids,” he says.

Numbat

In early spring, at about nine months of age, baby numbats start to take their first forays in the world outside their burrows. (Image: Robert McLean)

Their long, bushy tails, striped backs, reddish coats and long snouts make them appealing to look at and their skittish behaviour is endearing. “Once you see a numbat in the wild. That’s it. You’re hooked,” ­Robert says, and he’s right. After two days of traversing the dusty tracks in the company of the four men I see my first numbat. It’s just a glance but worth the many hours spent peering out from the back of a ute.

We look out for known numbats including Picasso, named for his bushy, paintbrush-like tail; Sheriff, who lives in an area the task force call “Log City”; Speedy Gonzales, named for his ability to run from the ­cameras; and Big Balls (I’ll leave that one to your imagination). The group searches with two vehicles in convoy in the expectation that if the first vehicle misses a sighting the second will pick it up. They laugh and joke their way through the woodland, stopping to check on echidnas, snakes and other wild creatures.

Sean knows every bird species that inhabits the woodland and documents every sighting or call. Matthew is the quietest of the four and breaks into a huge infectious smile when a numbat is in his viewfinder. John lives at Dryandra and has a wealth of knowledge about numbat quirks and habits. He points out raised lines of earth on the forest floor explaining they are shallow termite galleries that the numbats use to reach the insects. 

The numbat’s claws are not strong enough to dig into the concrete-like termite mounds that dot the woodland. Instead they attack the termite colonies at their weakest points, the network of galleries the insects use to move between dead logs and other food sources.

Dr Tony Friend, from the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife, has spent a lifetime monitoring and recording numbats, much of it at Dryandra. He says the Numbat Task Force has done a fantastic job in promoting the numbat and raising its status through lobbying, photography and social media. Tony says there are about 1000 numbats left in the wild, and he is optimistic that – if used carefully – a new feral cat bait called Eradicat, will help bring down cat numbers, giving numbats a better chance of survival (see AG 115). He has led a successful translocation program reintroducing about 500 numbats, many bred at Perth Zoo, into cat-free fenced sanctuaries in NSW and South Australia, as well as other smaller reserves in WA. Dryandra has been the source of the genetic stock used in the zoo’s captive-breeding program and the site of a number of releases.

Robert says he is not so sure Eradicat will work in an area such as Dryandra, with its bounty of fresh food for cats, and he is worried that not enough is being done to tackle the scourge of the feral cat.

In July last year, the numbat was named as one of 20 priority species by Gregory Andrews, the federal government’s Threatened Species Commissioner.

The numbat is “a remarkable Australian animal and a unique product of evolution”, he told Australian Geographic, adding that he is impressed by the passion of the Numbat Task Force. “We need people and groups like this to protect their local wildlife. Government alone can’t tackle the crisis of species extinction,” he says.

The numbat’s new status means it will have its own recovery plan and will be placed under the national spotlight. It is welcome news for the men of the task force who have vowed to continue their grassroots campaign to promote and protect this adorable and engaging creature.

READ MORE:

This article originally appeared in the Jan-Feb 2016 edition of Australian Geographic (AG#130).