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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 89 [12]

The Bathurst Project I

Photo: Ray Mjadwesch

A story.


In Bathurst, New South Wales, just west of the Blue Mountains, kangaroos on Mount Panorama, outside its nature parks, were a rare sight until the last decade or so. Interesting, given that early white explorers of the region had commented upon their plenitude, but also consistent with Charles Darwin’s expressed fear, when he visited the area in 1836, surprised that he’d not seen a kangaroo anywhere along the route from Sydney, that the new settlers, with their guns and dogs, would soon drive more than the kangaroo to extinction.


It’s ironic, then, that in recent years Bathurst has come to be known for its roos. At the turn of this century the Sir Joseph Banks Nature Park at Mount Panorama, on the town’s edge, closed and its kangaroos and wallabies (about 600 of them) and others of its inmates (emus, koalas) were released into the surrounding bush. The reserve on Mount Panorama had been a favoured release site for kangaroos and other wildlife rehabilitated by rescue groups, regardless of their species: along with the eastern greys, there were western greys, red kangaroos, wallaroos (rare albinos amongst them), swamp wallabies, red-necked wallabies, and others.


The animals dispersed into the surrounding landscape, finding the quiet spaces between the farms, the houses, the pit-lane precinct and the rifle-range – bushland on the back of the Mount, abandoned orchards, and wasteland associated with the rubbish tip. With this dispersal came increasing contact with local traffic, in particular traffic to and on the Mount Panorama racing circuit, home of the famous Bathurst 1000 which has increasingly been troubled by collisions and near misses between race-cars and macropods. In 2009 it was deemed that the kangaroos had become a safety risk to race participants – a report by a shooter described the population as ‘exploding’ – and a cull was undertaken. One hundred and forty kangaroos and eighty-eight joeys were destroyed.


Although this cull had caused some public outcry, in 2016 the Bathurst City Council, concerned to extensively develop the area and enhance the race’s amenities, again began to speak of culling, ostensibly in response to complaints from residents in the locality. Kangaroo scientists, community NGOs and individuals lobbied against a lethal solution and rallied significant media attention. Owing in part to something of a Council blunder, they were eventually successful, the turning point a request by Council to a community kangaroo science framework calling themselves the Bathurst Kangaroo Project to research and write a proposal to relocate the kangaroos to an appropriate site far from town. A bold plan, given that the accepted wisdom of wildlife bureaucrats is that relocation is far too expensive and doesn’t work, but a potential game-changer if it could be pulled off.


At the foot of Mount Panorama is (or was) an old apple orchard. Over time one of the main mobs of Mount Panorama roos had come to use this as surrogate habitat and home territory, for the grass and the shade it offered, and perhaps because it sat within a landscape largely separated from the rest of the Mount by compound fences, roads and a creek. In 2015 Council bought the orchard, intending to turn it into campgrounds. When the Council sent in large machinery to remove and chip the trees – the blunder I’ve just spoken of – the kangaroos fled the orchard in terror, at least twenty of them ending up on the streets of the town, causing two days of chaos and distress, three car accidents, closure of a city block, numerous kangaroo deaths, and the deployment of eight wildlife rescuers and several police. When the reason for the kangaroo chaos was explained to them, the tree-removal was halted, the kangaroos drifted back to the orchard, and Council, accepting the relocation option (which had the strong support of local National Parks and Wildlife office), erected temporary fencing on the two remaining sides of the orchard, so as to fully enclose it, and preparation for the humane removal of the kangaroos got under way.


The idea was to gather as many kangaroos as possible in the orchard. I say gather, but many seem to have brought themselves. One hundred and fifty or so were there  to start with, ninety coaxed over from the harness club across the road, and others, a few almost every dawn and dusk, began to gather on the wafer-thin verge between the soon-to-be-busy road and the temporary fencing, wondering what was going on inside.


On the morning after the fencing had been put in place, the first volunteers for the project were up well before dawn, concerned for just such ‘stragglers’. Sure enough, there in the pre-dawn light, were several kangaroos, wanting to get in to join their friends, some of them already spilling onto the road. It was a relatively easy matter to open up a few panels to let them in – a scenario they found themselves repeating, early morning after early morning, until the last stragglers had come. How many lives were saved in this way alone probably can’t be calculated. One of the regular truck drivers along that stretch of road – principal access to the rubbish-tip – had been making it a mission to mow down as many roos as he could. He was probably not alone.


It took five months to get the promised license, despite a National Parks and Wildlife assurance, on day one, not only that relocation of all the animals would be allowed, but also, given mounting risks of an approaching heatwave summer, joey season, and the reassurance all animals could be moved, that the project would be approved as a matter of urgency.


Substantial effort and expense were undertaken in the light of these guarantees, but, to the  rescue workers’ dismay, the license, when finally received, was a research license for an initial and very small proportion of the mob, a preliminary trial with extensive experimental procedures attached: fauna surveys, scat surveys, floristics studies, biomass research, tracking collars and other devices, etc..  Teams of volunteers took weeks to raise money for fencing, build a fourteen hectare soft release compound, order expensive tracking equipment that had to be hand-built, and to do surveys that under normal conditions might have taken months and cost thousands of dollars, and eventually all stipulations of the licence were met.


It was now a race against time. Council’s deadline  was looming. Joeys were emerging (at-foot, rather than pouch joeys, are harder to manage during the darting process). In the five months they’d waited, near-drought conditions had seen the grass in the orchard diminished and the rescuers had been bringing in feed for the kangaroos at $300-500 per week, an expense that might have been spared had the permit, for the whole mob, been expedited as originally indicated. And Council itself was now pressuring. The rental for the temporary fencing was mounting up. They were threatening to take the fencing down if the relocation didn’t get under way.


And so it began – begins – a long and complicated process. Gruelling, exhausting. A madness, some have called it, though others see it as both heroic and a breakthrough, a turning-point, a demonstration of the possibility of the so-far-deemed impossible.


But that’s for a later post.

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