The warru (Petrogale lateralis MacDonnell Ranges Race) reintroduction project on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia



The Black-footed Rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis MacDonnell Ranges Race), or warru, as it is known by Anangu, the traditional owners of the region, formerly inhabited the rocky hills of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands in north–west South Australia. However, introduced carnivores and inappropriate fire regimes have decimated the population, and there are now only 150–200 animals remaining in the wild. This prompted the formation of the Warru Recovery Team (WRT), a collaboration between Traditional Owners, Anangu communities and scientists, who are working together to recover warru populations across the APY Lands. The team are working on the Warru Reintroduction Project, which is combining modern science and the traditional ecological knowledge of Anangu to reintroduce warru back into the APY Lands. Between 2007 and 2009, 22 iti-warru (warru-joeys) were taken to Monarto Zoo (Monarto, South Australia) to initiate the captive population. These zoo-warru have successfully bred in captivity, and in 2011, six founder animals and five captive bred warru were returned to the APY Lands. They are being held in a 97-ha predator-proof warru enclosure that will allow zoo-warru to adjust to the local environment and to learn the survival skills of their ancestors, prior to being released into the wild. Lessons learnt from the release of warru into warru pintji will inform future release situations, as well as management of the in situ warru population, which remains the priority of the WRT.

Background to the Project

The Black-footed Rock-wallaby (Petrogale lateralis MacDonnell Ranges Race) occurs in the ranges of north–western South Australia (SA) in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands. Warru, as it is known by Anangu, the Traditional Owners of the APY Lands, is an important part of Tjukurpa (Anangu dreaming, law and stories) and was once an important food source for Anangu across the mountainous and rugged ranges of the APY Lands. However, increased predation by feral cats and foxes and changes to local fire regimes have decreased the warru population to approximately 150–200 individuals (Read & Ward 2011b; Ward et al. 2011a,b). One small colony is located in the west of the APY Lands in the Tomkinson Ranges near Pipalyatjara community, and another is located in the east in the Musgrave Ranges near Pukatja (Fig. 1). Warru therefore is rated as ‘Vulnerable’ under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Commonwealth of Australia), and it remains ‘Endangered’ in South Australia under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972.

Figure 1.

 Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia.

Anangu Working with Scientists to Increase Warru Abundance

Since the first targeted warru surveys of the APY Lands (Copley et al. 1989), Anangu have shared their knowledge of the distribution and ecology of warru with scientists and have worked towards highlighting the declining populations of this species (Nesbitt & Wikilyiri 1994; Read & Ward 2011b). Ongoing concerns for the declining warru population from Anangu elders resulted in the employment of Anangu rangers to work alongside scientists to reverse the warru population decline. In 2007, an official steering committee, the Warru Recovery Team (WRT), was formed to guide the management of warru recovery.

The WRT includes ecologists, veterinarians, research students, animal keepers and managers to guide the recovery of warru through expert advice, on-ground monitoring support, research, training, animal husbandry and funding to provide overarching guidance for the project. WRT members include the South Australian Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), Australian Government Working on Country (WOC), Conservation Ark, the University of Adelaide, Ecological Horizons Pty Ltd, APY Land Management and the broader Anangu community. The WRT holds regular teleconference and on-site meetings to apply a collaborative decision-making approach.

The WRT firmly believes that conservation and recovery of warru can lead to broader landscape biodiversity outcomes, in particular preservation and restoration of the unique and fragile ecological communities that occur on the APY ranges, which include unique mammal fauna and some fire sensitive vegetation (Robinson et al. 2003; Paltridge et al. 2009). Furthermore, the WRT is striving to ensure that this project provides significant employment, training and capacity building opportunities for Anangu (Read & Ward 2011b). This will not only assist in maintaining the cultural significance of warru, but, like other indigenous ranger programmes, potentially lead to positive social outcomes for the communities involved including education, health and financial benefits (Gilligan 2006; Northern Land Council 2006; Department of the Environment and Water Resources 2007).

At present, there are seven Anangu elders, eleven permanent part-time and 18 casual Anangu Warru Rangers employed to work on the overarching Warru Recovery Project. Anangu elders play an important role in overseeing the project and are actively involved in the collaborative decision-making processes of the WRT and in promoting the benefits of this work amongst their communities. Three teams of local indigenous rangers, known as ‘Warru Rangers’, are responsible for the management and monitoring of each warru colony. These colonies include the Tomkinson Ranges, the Musgrave Ranges and the captive bred warru population.

Warru Ranger work consists of warru trapping to conduct health checks and monitor population dynamics (Ward et al. 2011a), scat surveys for distribution analyses (Ward et al. 2011b), fox and cat baiting, predator track transect monitoring and prescribed burning activities in existing warru habitat (Read & Ward 2011a). All Warru Rangers are trained in the use of radiotelemetry and have been monitoring the survival rates of in situ warru populations since 1997. The rangers use their advanced tracking skills and traditional knowledge of country to monitor the presence of predators and feral animals within existing warru habitat and apply contemporary science in the form of CyberTracker digital data collection software, GPS, remote cameras and computers to record, collate and analyse the data collected.

Flexibility in the employment of Warru Rangers has been vital to the project’s current success in community engagement, with both permanent rangers and a large pool of casual rangers available for work. This minimises the risk to ongoing management and monitoring posed by a number of cultural issues, including the fact that attendance at work is often superseded by attendance at funerals and, particularly for male rangers, attendance at ‘business’ ceremonies. The latter issue is exacerbated by the fact that a lack of child care facilities means that many potential female rangers are not able to work, resulting in a male-biased Warru Ranger team.

Warru Reintroduction

Between 2007 and 2009, with the full support from Traditional Owners, State and local government authorities, 22 iti-warru (joeys, Fig. 2) were translocated from the two wild colonies on the APY Lands to Monarto Zoo (Monarto, South Australia), to establish a captive warru population and facilitate future warru reintroductions (Read & Ward 2011b). During the first translocation in May 2007, Anangu elders created a contemporary song and dance known as the warru inma to commemorate this significant event, which tells the story of how the warru mothers are sad that their babies have left the APY Lands. The majority of iti-warru were cross-fostered with captive Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies (Taggart et al. 2005, 2010), whilst several larger furred pouch young were hand-raised. All have since grown up, and some of the original ‘founder’warru have had joeys of their own at the zoo. This captive warru population or ‘zoo-warru’ as Anangu knows them will be used to source animals for reintroduction with the aim of increasing the overall warru population across the APY Lands (Read & Ward 2011a,b).

Figure 2.

Warru joey from Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, en route to Monarto Zoo, South Australia. (Photo: J. Muhic).

Warru Pintji

In preparation for warru reintroductions, scientists worked with Warru Rangers and Anangu elders to select a site for the construction of a predator-proof warru enclosure, referred to as the ‘warru pintji’ by Anangu. It was envisioned that this enclosure would in the future allow the zoo-warru to ‘harden-off’ or adapt to their natural environment prior to their release across the APY Lands. The site selection process combined Anangu traditional knowledge of the area and warru distribution with contemporary scientific methods to assess 25 potential hardening-off sites. Site assessment was based on cultural appropriateness, habitat suitability, the historical presence of warru, the potential for a warru population of at least 50 animals, the proximity of surrounding suitable habitat for potential dispersal and the logistics relating to management of the enclosure. In February 2010, a site at Donald’s Well, approximately 18 km from the extant Musgrave Ranges warru colony, was chosen as the preferred site for the enclosure that would be built and managed by Anangu Rangers (Fig. 3). The outcrop at Donald’s Well has a complex rock structure that will provide sufficient den sites and food resources for warru. Furthermore, Traditional Owners expressed that they had once hunted warru in this location when warru were more abundant, indicating that it had once provided suitable habitat for warru.

Figure 3.

 Aerial view of the predator-proof warru enclosure (warru pinjti), Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia. (Photo: J. Muhic).

The warru pintji spans 97 ha and contains a smaller internal holding pen for the separation of warru when required (Fig. 3). The fence was modelled on the Arid Recovery fence in South Australia (Moseby et al. 2009) and stands 1.8 m high with a 600-mm external floppy overhang that is supported by high tensile wire to prevent climbing intruders (Fig. 4). It consists of 40 and 50-mm mesh panels joined together at 600 mm above the ground and has a buried skirt that runs along the outside of the fence for approx 300-mm. It is designed to exclude cats (Felis catus), dogs (Canus canus), foxes (Vulpes vulpes) and European rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). Construction was completed in 35 days and involved a total of 14 Anangu community members who worked throughout the cold, wet winter months of 2010 to install 4.4 km of circumference fencing. The fencing staff were mentored and supervised by an experienced fencing contractor, and all Anangu involved in the construction are now equipped with the skills to perform ongoing fence maintenance without supervision.

Figure 4.

 View from outside the predator-proof warru enclosure at Donald’s Well, Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands, South Australia. (Photo: M. Ward).

Zoo-warru Progress and Future Plans

In March 2011, three male and two female zoo-warru were released into the warru pintj and Anangu elders celebrated by revealing a new verse to their contemporary warru inma, describing the happiness of warru mothers now that their babies were returned home. The positive development of this inma, and the contemporary development of new Tjukurpa, reflected a promise kept by the WRT to return the warru to the APY Lands and demonstrated important progress towards fulfilling the aspirations of Anangu for the programme. In July 2011, a further six warru (three males and three females) were released. Monitoring activities inside the warru pintji indicate that the warru are successfully adapting to their natural environment, establishing home ranges within the enclosure and identifying preferred food plants, including fig (Ficus brachypoda) and spearbush (Pandorea doratoxylon). Preliminary trapping data from July 2011 also have indicated that they are successfully breeding within the warru pintji.

Customary skills are now being integrated into the programme in a number of ways. To monitor for predators (which may kill warru) and unwanted herbivores (which compete with warru for food), Warru Rangers use their tracking skills to conduct predator track transects inside and outside the Pintji at least twice per week, whilst also checking the integrity of the fence and the survival of warru through radiotelemetry. Warru Rangers are also removing the remaining European rabbits using customary hunting methods and have conducted patch burns to provide protection for food plants and to stimulate new browse for warru.

While the zoo-warru continue to adapt to life inside the warru pintji under the attentive care of the Warru Rangers, the WRT is working towards identifying suitable reintroduction sites across the APY Lands for the next stages of warru reintroduction. This is being done using similar methods to those used for selecting the warru pintji site, employing extensive community consultation and ensuring the site is culturally, ecologically and logistically appropriate. Once a site is identified, the Warru Rangers will use their customary land management and scientific monitoring skills to prepare the site for the release of warru (e.g. predator and fire management and monitoring).

The success of the Warru Reintroduction Project and the overarching Warru Recovery Project is built on the complimentary and collaborative nature of the WRT, whose members provide a wide range of scientific, cultural and financial support. Warru recovery currently provides an important focus for the community, and if implemented comprehensively into the future, will lead to broader landscape biodiversity and social benefits.


We would like to thank all the Warru Rangers and warru minyma for their hard work over the years, the APY Land Management staff (past and present), and the Warru Recovery Team members including the South Australian DENR, WOC, Conservation Ark, the University of Adelaide, Ecological Horizons Pty Ltd and APY.