Warru Recovery Project

The warru is South Australia’s most endangered mammal.

Also known as the black-flanked wallaby, or the black-footed wallaby, warru (Petrogale lateralis centralis) were once widespread throughout the ranges of central Australia. This remarkable species has faced a significant decline over the past 80 years and was on the brink of extinction just 15 years ago, when a recovery project was established with the aim of restoring the species in its natural habitat.

Prior to European settlement, warru were abundant in central Australia. Reports from the 1930s refer to “one of the commonest animals with swarming populations”. However, barely 30 years later they were considered rare in South Australia.

Warru Recovery Project
A warru in the wild

Warru had all but disappeared by 2007. Surveys conducted between 2008-2010 estimated a total of between 100 and 200 animals in isolated populations in the Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. One population persisted near Kalka, in the Tomkinson Ranges near the Western Australian border, with another group living several hundred kilometres away at New Well, near Pukatja (Ernabella), in the eastern Musgrave Ranges.

Their drastic decline in the wild has been primarily caused by feral predators – foxes and cats.

The warru is an important animal in Aṉangu culture, and senior Aṉangu women (Minyma) were keen to see the warru return. The local extinction of warru at Wamitjara, where they were once plentiful, led to the formation of an official steering committee, the Warru Recovery Team (WRT), to assist in the management of warru.

Warru Recovery Project
Warru Recovery Team process a trapped warru in the Pintji

The WRT consists of APY Land Management staff, Traditional Owners, Aṉangu warru rangers and the broader Aṉangu community, and ecologists from organisations including the Alinytjara Wiluṟara Landscape Board, Department for Environment and Water (DEW), Zoos South Australia, Ecological Horizons and the University of Adelaide.

The overarching 40-year objective of the Warru Recovery Team is to downgrade the status of warru in South Australia from endangered to vulnerable. The project aims to maintain genetic diversity and increase the distribution and abundance of warru in South Australia.

The Warru Recovery Plan recognises the potential for warru recovery to facilitate landscape-scale positive environmental change in the APY Lands, including other species and ecosystems affected by processes such as fire and predation by introduced carnivores.

Warru Recovery Project
Warru captured during fauna surveys are kept in specially made canvas bags, which helps keep them calm and reduces stress

Timeline of events

1935

Warru were “one of the commonest mammals, with swarming populations”

1985

First APY Lands biological survey

1994

APY warru survey only confirms persistence in Musgrave Ranges (New Well and Wamitjara)

1996

Fox baiting began at New Well and Wamitjara

1998

Davenport Ranges (SA) warru population extinct

1999

Scat plots established at New Well and Wamitjara, and first Warru Rangers employed

2001

Kalka colony discovered, baiting and monitoring began in the area

2002

Buffel grass recognised as a threat – established at Kalka and just invading New Well

2002

Wamitjara fire destroys considerable warru habitat

2004

Aerial fox baiting began at New Well and Wamitjara

2005

Warru trapping began at Kalka and New Well, and a colony discovered at Alalka

2006

Wamitjara colony extinct

2007

Warru Recovery Team formed and a captive breeding program began. Pouch young were taken from the wild populations on the APY Lands to Zoos SA’s Monarto Safari Park, where they were cross-fostered with yellow-footed rock-wallabies to increase the rate of captive breeding.

Warru Recovery Project
A juvenile warru captured in a fauna survey is checked before being released

2008

Helicopter survey defines extent of Musgrave Ranges warru metapopulation

2009

Cross-fostering increasing captive warru population at Monarto Zoo. Warru, like many macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) have a survival adaptation called embryonic diapause. The mother warru mates and becomes pregnant as soon as a joey is born and makes its way to the pouch. The new embryo stops development at a very early stage, and can restart quickly if the mother loses the pouch young. By taking a joey from a warru and placing it with a yellow-footed rock-wallaby as a foster mother, the warru quickly gives birth again, effectively doubling the rate of reproduction.

2010

A 1km square predator-proof exclosure was constructed, to provide a safe haven for the warru in the captive breeding program while they adapt to their natural environment, safe from feral predators such as cats and foxes. This fenced area is known as the Pintji (pronounced pin-chee), the Pitjantjatjara word for fence.

Helicopter survey confirms satellite warru populations in Tomkinson Range

2011

Two separate releases of captive-bred warru occurred. A total of eight warru returned to the APY Lands and were released into the Pintji.

The Warru Recovery Team won the national NAIDOC ‘Caring for Country’ Award and launched the Warru Recovery Plan (WRP) 2010-2020.

Scat plots established at Hinckley.

2013

Dedicated shooting of cats and foxes begins around key warru habitat. The last rabbits and kanyala (euros) removed and the first pitfall survey at Pintji takes place.

2014

Mai (food) and kapi (water) points set up for warru at Hinkley and Kalka.

2015

Six more warru were released into the Pintji from the captive breeding program at Monarto.

A trapping survey in the Pintji in October captured a record number of warru, showing positive progress in the feral-free area.

2016

Feral cats confirmed as major predator of warru.

Warru Recovery Project
A warru is transferred from a trap to a bag for processing and release

2017

The Warru Recovery Team reintroduced the first group of warru into the wild. Healthy young warru from the Pintji and the now-growing wild population at New Well were translocated to the rocky slopes of Wamitjara in the nearby eastern Musgrave Ranges. This population was further boosted by additional translocations in 2019 and 2020.

2018

Felixers (automated feral predator devices) deployed for cat control at Wamitjara.

2019

Planning begins for the reintroduction of warru to the Everard Ranges.

2020

Browsing damage inside the Pintji indicative of warru overpopulation.

2021

Warru supplementations at Kalka.

2022

40 warru were were trapped in the Pintji and at New Well, and translocated to a site near Kulitjara in the Everard Ranges. It was the first time warru had been seen in the area for 60 years.

Warru conservation provides vital training and employment opportunities for Aṉangu, as well as strong connections to historical and contemporary Tjukurpa. Three Aṉangu ranger teams are dedicated to the recovery project, carrying out predator, weed and fire management activities as well as participating in fauna surveys and translocations.

2023

A second translocation to Kulitjara further boosted the new population.

Warru Recovery Project
Warru Recovery Team on a warru survey at Wamitjara