Watarrka (Kings Canyon) ranger station is home to a large feral-cat-and-fox-proof paddock housing an endangered mammal called a mala. Mala are very small macropods (kangaroos) that are furry, extremely cute and rather docile. Like many other small Australian mammals, they are nocturnal and are endangered due to introduced cats and foxes. Mala is a Luritja (Pitjantjatjara) word for this animal; in Arrernte, mala are called aherre, which is said like you’re trying to clear your throat or you’re Scottish. Think of how Scottish people say ‘loch’ and take the ‘ch’ sound and add -urra and that’s a bit like how Arrernte people say this word…
Ok. Maybe just say ‘mala’, which is why many English speakers find Pitjantjatjara much easier to learn than Arrernte.
Anyway, back to the mala. About ten years ago, the numbers of mala in Central Australia were at critical levels, so Parks and Wildlife began a breeding program. The program was really simple: build a feral-proof fence, get some mala and let nature take its course. So they brought some mala down from the Tanami Desert, put them in paddock and the little guys all got on really well. There were over a hundred in there. So many, that Uluru built a similar fence and took some mala to breed up as well.
As the mala have bred really well, Parks staff have to do a population census a couple of times each year. So last week, this is what Gary, some of the scientists and the other Watarrka rangers did: caught and counted mala.
Most of the time, the mala are easy to catch (in fact, some of them are very tame) , however you have to be very careful when handling females as they can expel their little tiny hairless babies out of sheer distress and shock.
Here are Chris (left) and Kim (right) weighing a mala.
Once the mala are caught, you weigh them, measure them and tag them so you know whether you’ve caught this particular little guy before, and so you can see how the little guys are doing:
Then, the mala is released back into the paddock to join his or her friends. The mala census usually takes about a week to finish, under the direction of the Park scientists. At Watarrka, the mala census is a bit of a community event, with many of the Traditional Owners from the communities on the park coming in to help with the census or bring along children to see the mala. And of course, there are the usual ranger BBQs and socialising. Gary did admit to getting bitten by one of them, but that’s another story…