Dr. Tony Friend spots him after days of scrolling through images on his computer.
On his screen is an image showing two small figures, captured in grainy black and white, on an island off Espérance.
They could be mistaken for any number of Australian bush dwellers – rats, mice or bandicoots.
Dr Friend stares for a moment, then shouts excitedly, as the research associate from Western Australia’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) knows exactly what they are.
These are Gilbert’s potoroos, a species that has been on the verge of extinction for years.
Yet Dr. Friend’s state of elation is not due to their identity but to their size, one being much smaller than the other.
It seems that one of the rarest marsupials in the world had babies.
The breeding “is going very well”
Gilbert’s potoroo was believed to have gone completely extinct until it was spotted for the first time in over a century near Albany in 1994.
The researchers then established a new population on Bald Island off Albany, which proved critical when a fire wiped out most of the original population at Two Peoples Bay in 2015.
In 2018, 10 more were brought to Middle Island, off Espérance.
In November and February, rangers from the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNTAC) traveled to the island to download data from motion-sensor cameras, designed to monitor the animals’ condition.
While sifting through tens of thousands of captured images was hard work, Dr Friend said the result was worth it when he spotted a potoroo.
“You just go, ‘Yay’,” he said.
Dr Friend said the only way to tell the individuals pictured apart was by their size, so he couldn’t tell the adults apart.
But he said two images showed a trio of potoroos, two adults and a joey, and the joey in the second photo was much smaller than the first.
“So they were different young potoroos,” Dr. Friend said.
Potoroos photographed in a new location
He said the cameras were stationed at a location likely to have potoroos, a location unlikely to have potoroos, and a location with a medium likelihood of having potoroos.
As expected, the former picked up a lot of potoroo images, and the latter picked up none.
But, excitingly, the latter also took on an image of potoroo.
“It was a new site for potoroos,” Dr. Friend said.
“And [it was] outside the home range of the potoroos [photographed by the first camera]so it’s definitely a different potoroo.
Dr Friend said trapping operations in the past had located six potoroos, three of whom were young at the time.
“We knew there was breeding going on,” he said.
A “most incredible privilege”
Before the end of the year, Dr. Friend hopes to have even more valuable information.
In February, ETNTAC guards placed 10 cameras across the island, with funding from Gilbert’s Potoroo Action Group (GPAG).
Ranger Hayleigh Graham said this would allow monitoring of most of the island.
“It was very difficult to cross there [to set the cameras up],” she says.
GPAG’s communications coordinator, Dr Jackie Courtenay, said a series of state grants for natural resource management, awarded in 2019, enabled it to launch a host of projects aimed at preserving the species. .
Projects include tracking the genetic variability of different populations, monitoring fungi and vegetation in their habitat, using radios to track them, and using cameras to monitor wild predators.
Dr. Courtenay has been passionate about saving Gilbert’s potoroo since 1996, when she participated in a state government conservation program.
“It’s just the most amazing privilege to be involved most of my adult life trying to help save such a beautiful and critically endangered animal,” she said.
Despite the dire situation of Gilbert’s potoroo from WA, she said her story so far was motivating as it proved people could make a difference in preserving the species.
“The species would have disappeared in 2015 with this catastrophic fire at Two Peoples Bay,” said Dr Courtenay.
“And that was entirely thanks to good planning [that it didn’t].
“Having another growing refuge population on Middle Island is so important to ensure that if the next fire, God forbid, hits Bald Island, having animals elsewhere is essential.”