Tracking feral animals to conserve the Top End


PhD candidate Stewart Pittard aims to increase knowledge of how feral animals impact the Top End

PhD candidate Stewart Pittard aims to increase knowledge of how feral animals impact the Top End

A new research project involving tracking buffalo in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory could contribute to future conservation management strategies for the region.

Charles Darwin University’s Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods PhD candidate Stewart Pittard aims to learn more about the animals in the park by using aerial surveys, GPS tracking collars and emerging remote sensing technology.

“There have been several studies focusing on feral buffalo density and even more on their impacts in the past, but this is one of the first attempts to quantify the relationship between their environmental impacts and their varied densities and seasonal movements,” Stewart said.

“Feral animals are one of the key land management issues in the NT. Since the end of the Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign in the 1990s where they were nearly eradicated, buffalo populations have been slowly increasing. This research will help to determine sustainable population densities for future management.”

The project aims to link the density of feral buffalo with their environmental impact across the Top End to increase knowledge of how feral animals impact local country, and to improve current management practices for the benefit of local communities and the environment.

“Typical feral animal management consists of culling programs to reduce numbers, with the expectation that environmental impacts will be reduced proportionally,” he said. “This relationship is rarely proportional with other pest species and without knowing how density influences impacts, culling programs are potentially removing too few animals to have a meaningful environmental benefit or removing too many animals, reducing the number of animals available for economic gain.”

This research project is one of the first on buffalo in the NT to use GPS tracking collars, allowing Stewart to follow individuals and map their locations in near real-time.

“We aim to survey buffalo at differing densities within Arnhem Land and Kakadu National Park and link these estimates with matching ground and satellite surveys of environmental damage,” he said.

“We can then use this data to map the relationship between a density level and its associated impacts. This will help determine the environmental benefits and economic cost of removing a certain number of animals from the landscape, and also enable the prediction of the expected density at any site given the level of impacts observed on the ground or from the sky, and vice versa.” 

He said that feral animal management in the NT was complex and required careful informed decision making to consider both the impacts to native ecosystems and economic opportunity for local communities.

“Knowing the density-impact relationship of feral buffalo, and other problem animals, will provide land managers with the information they need to strike a balance between the often competing perspectives of large feral animals as an environmental pest and as an economic or cultural resource, hopefully to improve feral animal management for all.”

This is an Australian Research Council Linkage Project with Parks Australia and will involve collaborations with Indigenous Traditional Owners and management agencies across the Top End.



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