Endangered wallabies arrive in Canberra on very different repatriation flight

Michael Smith hands over two endangered rock wallabies to Dr Sarah May, where they will be taken to Tidbinbilla. Picture: Keegan Carroll
Michael Smith hands over two endangered rock wallabies to Dr Sarah May, where they will be taken to Tidbinbilla. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The ACT has been well versed at receiving repatriation flights throughout the pandemic, but the one that touched down at Canberra Airport on Thursday was different in many ways to those that brought home stranded Australians.

For starters, only two passengers were onboard the flight that lasted a little more than an hour, and will have to undergo quarantine for two months rather than two weeks.

The passengers also happened to be two critically endangered southern brush-tailed rock wallabies.

The two wallabies, flown in from a wildlife sanctuary near the NSW Central Coast, will become the newest members of the recovery population of the species being housed at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.

One male and one female wallaby will join the 27-strong recovery population to help increase numbers of the endangered species and boost genetic diversity.

The endangered southern brush-tailed rock wallaby entering 60 days of quarantine, before becoming part of the Tidbinbilla population. Picture: Supplied

The endangered southern brush-tailed rock wallaby entering 60 days of quarantine, before becoming part of the Tidbinbilla population. Picture: Supplied

Threatened species program manager at Tidbinbilla Dr Sarah May said the new wallabies would be part of the Tidbinbilla population for at least 18 months.

"For the female coming in, we want her to have two offspring and the male will be placed in a breeding group with three females, so all up we'll hopefully have five offspring," Dr May said.

"We've been breeding rock wallabies for years and it used to just be a numbers game to bulk up the population, but once we can start looking at genomes, we can get more savvy with how we're breeding the animals and how we build up the gene pool."

While the wallabies arrived on a flight on Thursday, it will still be several weeks before the new arrivals go into Tidbinbilla.

Dr May said the wallabies would enter 60 days of quarantine.

"It's all biosecurity protocols to make sure there are no diseases entering the populations," she said.

"Even though they're the same animal, it's a different population in northern NSW compared to Tidbinbilla."

The wallabies species was last seen in the wild in the ACT in 1959.

A reserve population of the brush-tailed rock wallabies started with three of the animals at Tidbinbilla and have been protected from predators by fencing.

The two wallabies were transported to Dr Sarah May in Michael Smith's four-seater plane. Picture: Keegan Carroll

The two wallabies were transported to Dr Sarah May in Michael Smith's four-seater plane. Picture: Keegan Carroll

Such has been their importance that the entire population was evacuated from Tidbinbilla during the Black Summer bushfires when the Orroral Valley blaze threatened the Namadgi National Park.

Those wallabies were flown out by Michael Smith, who also happened to be the one to transport the two new wallabies into Canberra on Thursday.

While the wildlife sanctuary the new wallabies came from was only a few hours up the road from Canberra, Mr Smith said the marsupials travel better by air, and helps to cut down on travel time and stress for the animals.

"They're quite comfortable while they're on board, because marsupials are most comfortable when they're in the foetal position and we put them in a hessian sack and they're curled up on the journey," he said. "They're very well supported and they calmly rest the whole way."

The plane used by Mr Smith to transport the wallabies is a unique one, with the four-seater aircraft also able to land on water.

"It's an amphibious flying boat, and it's almost like a station wagon where the back opens up and you can put an enormous amount in there," he said.

Dr May said while the male would likely be part of the population for 18 months, the female wallaby would be there for longer.

"[To raise a joey] takes about a year's turnaround and we want the mum to raise the baby well, so she'll be here at Tidbinbilla for a few years," she said.

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This story At-risk wallabies arrive on repatriation flight first appeared on The Canberra Times.