Indigenous knowledge and modern science combine to save species from extinction

10 January 2023

A long-running conservation program to ensure the survival of the endangered mala (rufous hare-wallaby) at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has proven successful. 

A census conducted by Parks Australia to measure the mala population at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (UKTNP), shows that mala numbers have increased significantly from about 25 in 2004 to a stable population of over 300 in 2022.

The mala (Lagorchestes hirsutus) is a small marsupial that once inhabited spinifex grass country throughout Central Australia but are now extinct in the wild. They only survive on the mainland in populations held in large predator-proof enclosures in the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The mala’s near extinction in the early 1990s was due to habitat degradation caused by European settlement, reduction of traditional Aboriginal burning practices and predation by cats and foxes. 

The Mala Conservation Program was established in 2004 and for the past 18 years Parks Australia’s rangers and science teams have worked alongside Aṉangu, UKTNP’s Traditional Owners, to manage and preserve the mala population, combining traditional Aboriginal knowledge with modern scientific research methodology.

Anangu traditional knowledge was used to locate mala, identify their food sources and to better understand their habitats and ecosystems. Knowledge of wild mala behaviours was captured through oral histories and traditional fire management practices were adopted to lessen the impact of bushfires on the mala’s habitat. The Mala Conservation Program also ensures that traditional ecological knowledge is handed down to young Aṉangu.

The 2022 mala census, where the Uluru-Kata Tjuta mala population is recorded, was a collaboration between Parks Australia, Anangu, Taronga Zoo, the Central Land Council’s Tjakura Rangers and Mutitjulu Community rangers, the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water’s Terrestrial Threatened Species section, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Alice Springs Desert Park, and the CSIRO, to build partnerships and gain knowledge from each organisation for the recovery of mala.

Quotes attributable to the Minister for Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek MP:

“The Mala Conservation Program at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is just one example of how our brilliant Parks Australia staff work successfully with Traditional Owners and scientists to protect Australia’s important natural and cultural heritage.

“Important programs like this are the reason why Labor has committed to doubling the number of Indigenous Rangers by the end of the decade to 3,800."

Quotes attributable to Shaeleigh Swan, Anangu and Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s Acting Natural and Cultural Heritage Ranger:

“The mala are important to Anangu, through the Tjukurpa stories and customary law, which is the foundation of Anangu life. The mala conservation program is not only significant for the environment and species biodiversity by saving the mala from extinction but also for cultural recovery of the area.

“The mala conservation is part of the National Mala Threatened Species Recovery Plan that includes four other sites across Australia. The other sites are Trimouille Island, and Matuwa Kurrara Kurrara IPA in Western Australia and Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary and Alice Springs Desert Park, in the Northern Territory. The team at Uluru have worked closely with these sites to share their traditional knowledge.”