We are going through the worst drought here in outback South Australia since the Arid Recovery Reserve was established. For two years we’ve received only 90 mm of rain (in total), well below the average, and there’s no relief forecast on the horizon. We’re looking into the abyss of a brutally hot and dry summer.
Years of less than 100 mm rainfall (in red) have been historically rare in our region but we’ve received only 90 mm in two years over 2018 and 2019.
The populations of wildlife that we protect in our reserve have declined sharply. Our once abundant bettongs are now relatively scarce. Signs of bilbies and bandicoots are far less common. Stick-nest rats are hanging on by a thread, with only a small number of active nests remaining.
Measures of activity from track surveys for bettongs and bilbies have fallen dramatically.
We are in crisis mode. This drought has forced us to rethink the way we manage the reserve, particularly in regards to providing free food and water for the animals. We’ve previously been against supplementary food and water, and for good reason. We have strived to retain animals’ fitness for living in the wild, aiming for the only differences from how these species lived 100+ years ago to be the absence of feral cats, foxes and rabbits, and the existence of the predator-proof fence. Providing food and water can promote unnatural and detrimental behaviours in animals, at times promoting extreme aggressiveness. Also, the physiology of many native animals is not suited to diets of processed food. Despite all this, the drought has given us no choice but to intervene with supplementary food and water. The survival of our populations of threatened species depends on it.
While these interventions are not natural, neither is the fence. It restricts movement of feral animals into the reserve, but it also stops movement of natives to the outside. In the past, bilbies would have travelled long distances across the landscape to take advantage of patches where there had been good rain. There’s a spot just like this on the highway 40 km south of us. But now animals are limited to the resources available inside the reserve, and we need to at least make up to them their missed opportunities from not being able to move.
We have deployed water fountains across the reserve, watered patches of natural vegetation, and have established a small number of feeding stations.
Animals visit ‘water fountains’ to get a much-needed drink. From left to right: greater stick-nest rat, burrowing bettongs, greater bilby.
We’ve put a lot of thought into making our interventions as natural as possible, and are doing these drought relief measures in an experimental framework so that we can test what works. For example, we are targeting water to small patches of vegetation near to where the struggling stick-nest rats live to encourage juicy fresh leaves to grow on their favourite food plants. To see if it works we’ve set up vegetation monitoring plots, camera traps and grazing exclosures to measure the plants’ response and which animals are benefitting. A massive thank you to all the volunteers who have helped us with carting water.
Watering patches of Gunniopsis, a succulent native plant loved by stick-nest rats, to stimulate fresh growth
Even if we can make it through this drought retaining our populations of native animals, it’s clear that we will need to make major changes and refine our strategy to shore up the reserve’s resilience for the future. While this drought is unprecedented for Arid Recovery, it is unlikely to be the last with our changing climate.
The southern arid rangelands have already experienced 1 degree of warming on average. Animals are now exposed to conditions that they wouldn’t have experienced in the past. Our region is projected to get hotter year-round and experience more heatwaves. Winter rainfall is expected to decrease and the time we’ll spend in drought is likely to increase overall.
In the meantime, we do what we can to help the wildlife survive and endeavour to learn and trial ways to build climate resilience into this arid ecosystem.
Your help is greatly appreciated in this trying time. You can help our drought relief effort by volunteering or making a donation .
- A donation of $10 can provide food for the animals at one feeder for a fortnight.
- A donation of $30 will cover the cost of carting water to keep water fountains topped up.
- A donation of $250 will fund detailed monitoring of one stick-nest rat to understand how extreme heat affects them and strategies for giving them refuge from the heat.
Watering stick-nest rat food plants to stimulate fresh growth
Photos by Ines Badman