Mainland Australia is again home to Tammar wallabies, wallabies that their former host, New Zealand, wanted to be rid of.

Twenty Tammar wallabies have just been released into a South Australia national park, eight decades after being wiped out on mainland Australia.

“This has been a unique opportunity to return an extinct species back to the wild,” South Australian Minister for Environment and Conservation John Hill said in a statement. “The re-introduction represents a second chance at survival for an Australian native animal.”

The wallabies have a former colonial ruler to thank for their second chance at life.

Sir George Grey, who had served as a governor in South Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, bought a beautiful New Zealand island, Kawau Island, for his home when he was appointed as New Zealand’s governor for a second time.

There, more than a hundred years ago, he planted exotic trees and shrubs and introduced many bird and animal species to the island in the Hauraki Gulf. Governor Grey’s menagerie included zebras, antelopes, kookaburras, and Tammar wallabies.

Tammars are the smallest wallaby species and weigh between 5 and 7 kilograms. According to the Department of Environment and Heritage’s website, they were the first macropods to be sighted in Australia by European explorers. In 1629, Francisco Pelsaert, captain of the Batavia, saw the wallabies when he was shipwrecked on Abrolhos Island in Western Australia. He thought they looked like “hopping cats”.

However, predations by foxes and the clearance of the wallabies’ habitat for agricultural use has meant that, up until now, the mainland Tammar wallaby has been listed as “extinct in the wild”. In New Zealand, however, the species is classed as a ‘noxious animal’ and New Zealand conservationists wanted rid of it.

Fortuitously, ecological detective work by scientists at the Macquarie University discovered that the Kawau Island wallabies were originally from the South Australian mainland, offering a neat solution to the two problems: the capture and repatriation of the Kawau Island wallabies offered a chance to return them to their old home.

After being captured in 2003, the Tammar wallabies spent a year in quarantine at a South Australia zoo and then were released into the Innes National Park in South Australia in November.

But not everyone is pleased to have them home from New Zealand. John McEvoy, whose property is next to Innes National Park, told Adelaide’s Advertiser newspaper that the release was irresponsible because the wallabies’ love of crops and pastures put nearby farmland at major risk. On Australia’s Kangaroo Island, where the Tammar wallabies are considered agricultural pests, the damage to farmland has been severe, he told the newspaper.

The South Australia government, however, believes that the Tammar wallabies will not reach the same density as on Kangaroo Island (they number about one million there), as foxes and other predators are likely to keep the numbers of mainland wallabies in check.

Next the Tammar Wallaby are expected to be released at other places across mainland South Australia. To achieve that a captive breeding programme is being established.

Meanwhile, the wallabies descended from those first mobs that Sir George Grey introduced should be gone from New Zealand’s Kawau Island by 2005.

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