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kangaroo island dunnart

kangaroo island land for wildlife and australian wildlife conservancy - 
Ramindjeri land

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Image: Brad Leue/AWC

Saving australia's most endangered mammal

Ramindjeri land

Australians everywhere will remember the terrible destruction of so much of South Australia’s Kangaroo Island (Karta Pintingga) during the Black Summer of 2020. (What a strange time it was, watching our country burn on telly every night.) The fires on KI were particularly relentless, burning through almost half the island, taking a countless number of lives. It was a devastating event for a place that is home to so many native species, many of them endemic to KI, like the Kangaroo Island Dunnart. (Sminthopsis aitkeni)

An elusive little carnivorous marsupial with dark sooty fur, the Kangaroo Island Dunnart is the most endangered mammal in Australia. 

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

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Checking traps for Kangaroo Island dunnarts

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

Why is the Kangaroo island dunnart critically endangered?

Even before the fires, ecologists estimated the whole population to be somewhere between 300-500 individuals. They are incredibly hard to trap. After more than 35000 trap nights, the KI Dunnart is only known from 35 records and 6 trapping sites. There needs to be way more research on these animals to be able to meet the challenges involved in their conservation.

The biggest problem is predation by feral cats, but what’s significant is that all the other threats make it easier for these predators to kill.


KI vegetation is affected by an invasive pathogen (Phytophthora cinnamomi) - a soil-borne water mould that causes dieback. Just like land clearing, this further depletes habitat and shelter for wildlife.


The fires have made this problem so much worse - Australian Wildlife Conservancy research shows that cats can hunt way more efficiently in burnt landscapes. Feral cats are the major cause for native mammal extinction around the country, killing around over one million of them every night.


Feral cat caught on infra red camera on KI

Image: AWC

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Multiple threats to the species and the urgency for action were met head on by a hardworking alliance of conservationists.


Dianne Pearson is a Conservation support Officer from KI Land for Wildlife (KILfW), a private land conservation program that supports landholders to better understand and manage their property bushland for the conservation of threatened species. ‘By mid January, it was clear that about 95 percent of the Dunnart’s habitat had been scorched. Before the smoke had cleared, we had to get cracking with an emergency response,’ she says.

Emily Rush setting camera traps after the fires

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

watch this ABC NEWS STORY about the work being done to save the Kangaroo Island dunnart 

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The fenceline of the Western River Refuge

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

Early in January, KI Dunnart activity was confirmed within some small patches of unburnt bush on private land. Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) moved fast to provide scientific support staff and funds directed to help KILfW and their participating landholders to secure the handful of animals that had survived the fires. ‘We began by building a critical refuge. To protect the surviving population from predation, Within six weeks of the fire, with the help of volunteers and the Australian Army we had fenced 13.8 hectares. That was just the start,’ says Dr Viyanna Leo from AWC.


Work and the partnerships continued to expand the area into what has become the Western River Refuge. Jointly managed by KILfW, AWC and local landholders (the Doube family), the Western River Refuge is a fenced sanctuary that provides over 369 hectares of critical habitat for threatened species.

The success of the project is as clear to see as the regrowth of the bush, with threats measurably reduced in and around the management zones. There are now 70 properties under KI Land for Wildlife membership, with over 200 KI community landholders engaged in private land conservation action.

'Since the fires, we have individual detections of the KI dunnart on camera over 760 times,' says Pearson. 'We have also revegetated 10ha, developed our conservation education program to include over 700 students annually, removed over 700 feral cats from within the fire scar, and supported the robust feral pig control program to remove over 200 feral pigs from privately owned heritage agreement properties. And we continue to grow our membership and community engagement effort for long-term conservation outcomes.

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

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Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

KILfW program manager Heidi Groffen reflects on the thrill of finally seeing a KI Dunnart up close in the hand. 'It was during our seasonal vertebrate fauna trapping survey that we finally got lucky and trapped a young female. Some of us had been working on this project for several years and were yet to even see one. It was so exciting for us all to hold her and  measure and weigh her  before we released her back in to the safety of the refuge - for her long term protection and for the long -term protection of the species.'

Recovery for Kangaroo Island is a long term endeavour, and it relies on close and generous collaborations like this one. 'This project was tough from the beginning, there was so much devastation and uncertainty around the KI Dunnart’s fate. What we have shown is how crucial private conservation groups are in contributing to conservation and how important it is to have staff in the field,' says Dr Leo. 'Being part of this project and partnership has been extremely rewarding.'

Groffen agrees, 'We are making a tangible difference. We are building a sound database of ecological knowledge on the KI dunnart, engaging private landholders, and further developing management strategies to protect KI dunnarts and other threatened species and their habitats. We are saving a species. There's nothing better.'

The Big Picture Collective is proud to donate to both Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife and Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

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The fully fenced feral cat exclusion area of the Western River Refuge

Image: Brad Leue/ AWC

Every one of julie's limited edition Kangaroo island dunnart portraits sold helps to fund KILFW and Australian Wildlife Conservancy.

'I’ve had a long connection with Kangaroo Island, having created a custom fabric design for Southern Ocean Lodge back in the day,’ says Julie. ‘That beautiful place was destroyed during the Black Summer fires. Two firefighters lost their lives and almost half the island was burned. Tragically, these fires decimated the wildlife on the island.

 It's wonderful what KILfW, AWC and the private landholders of KI have achieved to give the KI dunnart and other species a chance to survive into the future.' 

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