Deep in tiger country, a rare predator prowls

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The CEC’s Tiger Quoll Conservation Program featured in this weekend’s Saturday Age.

The article written by Tim Young is reproduced below. We have included the accompanying video here (with thanks to Tim Young and The Age) or you can see his article and video at The Age online.

Kilogram for kilogram it has the second-strongest bite of any predatory mammal in the world. Also a talented hunter, it is the largest marsupial carnivore on Australia’s mainland. And yet the tiger quoll is in deep trouble.

Down in the forests of Cape Otway, tiger quolls used to roam in numbers, hunting prey in the canopy or snatching chickens from farms. But following a sharp decline in the local population, a decade passed without one confirmed sighting.

That puzzled experts like Jack Pascoe of the Conservation Ecology Centre. Why would an animal with every natural advantage drop away so suddenly? It remains a mystery, but recent discoveries have conservationists excited, and helped fuel a campaign to locate and protect what quolls are left in the wild.

”Last year, we had a couple of confirmed sightings from scat DNA,” Dr Pascoe said, ”so we know they are still here, but we presume in extremely low numbers.”

The sightings were celebrated at the CEC’s Great Ocean Ecolodge, which was founded by conservationists Lizzie Corke and Shayne Neal in 2000. They maintain a captive quoll population sourced from NSW.

”They [tiger quolls] play a very important role in terms of engagement, giving people a chance to see such special animals,” Ms Corke said.

The captive quolls are pitching in to help locate their wild cousins. Researchers think they can use scat collected from the group to tempt wild ones out of hiding.

”Tiger quolls in the wild use communal latrines in order to communicate with each other, and we’re hoping to take advantage of that behaviour,” said Dr Pascoe, who in the past month began placing scat in front of motion-sensor cameras hidden in the forest.

So far, the cameras have captured foxes, kangaroos and koalas, but no quolls.

Conservationists have also been using scat to train dogs to sniff out wild quoll droppings. Through meticulous training, the dogs learn how to distinguish between quoll scat and the droppings of other native animals and how to sweep large areas of forest in search of their prize.

If quoll scat is discovered, samples can be collected and sent for analysis.

The first fully trained dog teams will be deployed in coming months.

The Otway Estate brewery has also joined the effort by offering a new ”Spotted Ale”, the proceeds of which will go directly into the quoll conservation program. Unsurprisingly, Dr Pascoe is a fan of the beer. ”It’s not drinking, it’s philanthropy,” he said with a smile, adding the beer was set to deliver $100,000 to the project.

”You can happily get drunk while doing a good thing. It’s a very worthwhile drop.”

Next week, Dr Pascoe will head into a new area of forest to set up cameras at different sites.

Discovering even a small colony of quolls would allow for targeted conservation work that could see a healthy population return.

”Without any conservation effort, I would think that the future for tiger quolls in the Otways is fairly grim,” Dr Pascoe said, ”and we hope that’s not the case.”

By Tim Young

Read more and see the video at The Age online.