Numbat Breeding for Release Programme
To breed and reintroduce numbats into their former range in Australia
The numbat (Myrmecobius fasciatus) is the mammal emblem of Western Australia. It is a small charismatic pouch-less marsupial that has suffered a marked decrease in numbers since the arrival of Europeans. Prior to European settlement, the numbat had an extensive range across southern semiarid and arid Australia, from western New South Wales through South Australia and southern Northern Territory to the south-west of Western Australia, where it inhabited woodlands (Eucalyptus and Acacia) and grasslands (Triodia and Plectrachne).
Today, the numbat is classified as endangered by IUCN. Original wild populations are found only at a couple of small areas of Wandoo bushland in the Dryandra and Perup forests in the south-west of Western Australia. Several reasons have led to this decline but the main factor is predation by introduced exotic predators, in particular red foxes and feral cats that have seriously threatened the survival of the numbat. There were probably only two successful introductions of the red fox that formed the basis of the current population. One pair was released close to Ballarat about 1871, and several at Point Cook, also in the early 1870s. In less than a decade the descendants of this handful of English red foxes had colonised some 13,000 km² of Victoria and, by 1917, foxes could be found as far away as Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. Foxes now range over two-thirds of the continent, their northern limit being within 160 km of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The numbat has also suffered massive habitat destruction through clearing for farming. The rate of destruction increased dramatically in the 1960s in the Wheatbelt region. The remaining small, isolated pockets of uncleared land left the numbat very vulnerable to predation. During the 1960s, the Government encouraged Aborigines to leave their nomadic way of life and traditional homelands and settle on missions. In arid areas, the disappearance of Aborigines led to changes in landcare. Without the patchwork burning of small fires (an Aboriginal hunting method), vegetation built up. Eventually, when fires broke out, they were fierce and massive, destroying both the shelter and food source of the numbats.
In 1993, a Numbat Recovery Team was established to help coordinate the actions necessary for the numbat recovery. Perth Zoo and the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) have managed the Numbat Recovery Programme co-operatively since 1987, with ex situ breeding for release being Perth Zoo's primary role.
The Numbat Recovery Programme started in 1985 at the Wildlife Research Centre in Woodvale under Senior Research Scientist Dr Tony Friend (DEC). Perth Zoo and DEC established a cooperative breeding programme at the zoo in 1987 with a view that the zoo would be better able to bring public awareness to the plight of the numbat and use its expertise in ex situ breeding. The first successful breeding of numbats occurred in 1992 but routine breeding did not occur until 1996 following the development of a breeding protocol and increased research.
In 1997, an oestrus cycle monitoring research project was undertaken by Perth Zoo's Senior Numbat Keeper and was later presented at a conference in New Zealand. This information was pivotal in the development of the breeding and management protocols for numbats. Other projects at Perth Zoo have included an investigation into the captive diet (numbats only eat termites so a substitute diet is necessary to meet nutritional requirements as the required number of termites is not always available) and its influence on breeding outcomes, as well as hormone and cortisol studies.
The first release of Perth Zoo-bred numbats into the wild took place in 1993. Since then, more than 180 numbats bred at Perth Zoo have been released into protected habitat.
WAZA Conservation Project 05029 is implemented by Perth Zoo, in partnership with the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation.
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