It’s one of the most beautiful marsupials in Australia: the yellow footed rock wallaby.
It’s also an evolutionary miracle.
It did not arise from the kindness or prodigality of nature; on the contrary, it was the product of extraordinary harshness and adversity, a familiar theme in the story of the flora and fauna of pre-white Australia: long stretches of time and environmental adversity created a high degree of specialisation (unlike in Europe and Asia, where a kinder climate and soil allowed certain plant and animal species to generalise and dominate across a wide area).
The yellow foot’s natural environment – the Flinders Ranges – is one of the harshest places on earth.
The Flinders Ranges runs into the heart of Central Australia, the greatest arid area in the world. Photographed here from a NASA satellite, we see that the Flinders Ranges is surrounded by desert and huge salt lakes, two of which are shown here (but there are in fact 5 of them including further north, the vast Lake Eyre – 9.5 000 sq kms – not shown in this frame).
On the western flank of the section of northern Flinders where Anya and I went in search of the yellow foot in the winter of 2009, is Lake Torrens – 6000 sq kms of sunblasted salt.
On the eastern flank was arid marginal land extending for thousands of kilometres deep into the east of New South Wales.
The northern Flinders Ranges is a series of cliffs, gullies and large interceding plains.
It is not a consistent or continuous range as is commonplace elsewhere in the world.
Australia is one of the oldest continents in the world. Once the Flinders Ranges was a towering range, like the Himalayas, but hundreds and millions of years saw it being worn down – and worn out.
Walking the Flinders means traversing a variety of landscapes ranging from desert plains to steep ridges and deep gullies.
The yellow footed rock wallaby evolved in a place where ordinarily only lizards and snakes could survive. Where water is scarce and the summers ferociously hot.
How did it do it?
It lived in the deep crevices and caves of its rocky habitat, which provided it with protection from the summer heat – which can reach 50 degrees Celsius. In an area of the world where rain only falls sporadically and then often in the form of infrequent and localised thunderstorms, the yellow foot was able to dart out of its hole quickly and drink up a large amount of water in a very short space of time. It had the remarkable ability to drink up to about 11% of its body weight (and the yellow foot was one of the largest of the rock wallaby family) in seven minutes. In times of drought, it could drink saline water from creek beds with a salinity level approaching that of sea water. The reproductive cycle of the animal was adapted to meet the fierce demands of it environment. Whilst other members of the kangaroo and wallaby species carried their joeys with them at all times, the yellow footed rock wallaby could leave her joey in a safe spot amongst the rocks whilst she went off to feed or drink water on her own. Back with her joey, the mother was then able to feed it by direct mouth to mouth transfer – something which is not seen in any other marsupial. When there was enough food and water, the species could breed all year long. When drought came, the female yellow foot abandoned her joey. If she became pregnant during a drought, the embryo would be ‘stalled’ in her system and would not start developing until the drought had passed.
The yellow footed rock wallaby was a gregarious animal. It had a high degree of attachment to a defined area of its habitat; it formed family groups of six to eight adults and in turn those family groups made up a colony. In pre-white times, a colony could often number 200-300 animals. Along the entire chain of Flinders Ranges, there must have been thousands, even tens of thousands of them. Each animal, holed up in its little rock hollow, was an integral part of a genetic chain of life, a member of one big, extended family. And originally, that extended family thrived far further south than the Northern Flinders Ranges
The aborigines hunted the yellow foot for pelts and meat. They dug pits along known wallaby trails; up to thirty animals could be captured at one time. The butchering and distribution of the wallaby meat was under the strict control of the initiated men of the tribal group. Aboriginal hunting of the species never affected its numbers or chances of survival.
The real damage began with the arrival of the Europeans. The short and brutal history of the extermination of the yellow footed rock wallaby serves as an apt metaphor for all the avarice, blindness and stupidity which accompanied the white man’s settlement of Australia – the consequences of which we are still cursed with today. It also mirrors the fate of most of Australia’s native animals – animals which confronted with extreme conditions, diversified and specialised and, flourished for tens of thousands of years only to go into rapid decline soon after white settlement.
The yellow footed rock wallaby was hunted for its beautiful hide and the hides were exported to London where they were highly sought after and fetched a good price. In the 1890’s, this export industry accounted for thousands of yellow footed rock wallabies. One record quotes 300 animals being killed in one day for the export market. Hides were exported to the other Australian colonies as well as Britain.
Perhaps even worse than this, was the shooting of the yellow foots for ‘sport’.
The naturalist Thomas Ward noted in the early 1880’s,
“…the Rock-wallaby is by far the most abundant of the animals, and yet it is a much persecuted creature. Rock-wallaby shooting is a favourite sport with all classes of colonists.”
A Flinders Ranges newspaper wrote in 1883,
“The best sport we had was in firing at the rock-wallaby from the seat of the buggy, and watching them fall down the cliffs. Fourteen we saw fall, some were wounded, but before reaching the bottom were pretty well dead. One in particular had a soft and lucky fall and came to die at our horses’ feet. We were indeed loathe to leave so pretty a spot. We gazed and feasted our eyes on nature’s handiwork.”
Besides shooting, enormous damage was done by the clearing of the land and introduction of European animals such as foxes, rabbits and goats. Whilst the yellow footed rock wallaby was safe whilst it was holed up in a cliff face, it was in trouble as soon as it ranged in search of food and water. With rabbits and goats eating the grasses the yellow foot fed upon, it was forced to range further, which made it vulnerable to foxes.
By the early 1900’s, the yellow footed rock wallaby was on the point of extinction. In 1912 the South Australian parliament passed the ‘Animals Protection Act’ which outlawed the killing of all rock wallabies and the sale of their hides. The law had no effect because it wasn’t policed.
A species once found in prolific numbers was down to a few animals housed in the Adelaide Zoo.
In the 1990’s, as attitudes to the environment and its original indigenous custodians changed, a state funded campaign was launched to release yellow foots bred in captivity in selected places in the northern Flinders Ranges – along with the systematic poisoning of introduced species which threatened the survival of the yellow foot e.g. rabbits, foxes and goats.
Anya and I adopted the same mode of travel as we had for the 20 years we had gone trekking in the Indian Himalaya: carrying all our own equipment and supplies and camping out in our little tunnel tent.
We took along a small pair of binoculars to spot the yellow foot amongst the cliffs.
Trekking in the Flinders Ranges was very different to the Himalaya and yet it was also a continuation of the same journey. In 2009, the number of people walking in the Northern Flinders was a fraction of today. The search for the yellow footed rock wallaby amongst the cliffs and gullies of that desert range meant being on our own for days on end in the midst of an untrammelled natural world – far from cities, roads, traffic, suburbs, and noise.
To sight that rare and beautiful animal – an evolutionary miracle – in that time of solitude – meant to be able to imagine the pre-white past, before the destruction began; in solitude, there was atonement. The search of the yellow footed rock wallaby was in this way, a spiritual journey – although unlike our years or trekking in Himalaya, we did not see a single monastery or temple, lama or god man.