Jenolan Caves

Jenolan’s Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies Win the Struggle to Survive

May 3, 2020

Feeding brush tailed rock wallabies in the old days

Jenolan is known for many wonders, including its array of wild macropods (kangaroos and wallabies).  At Jenolan, you might spot Eastern Grey Kangaroos, Wallaroos, Swamp Wallabies and Red Neck Wallabies, all quite common.  But Jenolan is also very fortunate to be home to a colony of rare Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies, listed as endangered in NSW.  These adorable little animals live wild in the Jenolan valley.

Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies are small, with adults weighing only 6 to 8 kg.  Their greyish-brown fur makes them nearly invisible in their rocky environment.  They can be recognised by the light-coloured cheek stripes, black blaze on their heads and their distinctly bushy tails.  Extremely agile and sure-footed, they bounce effortlessly over the steepest and most rugged terrain. 

In the 1800s, the little Brush Tailed Rock Wallabies were a delightful attraction at Jenolan.  Tourists and staff loved hand-feeding the tame creatures. 

Unfortunately for the wallabies, although the spectacular caves were protected, wildlife was not. Hunting became a popular pastime, encouraged at Jenolan. To attract more overnight guests, ads were placed in newspapers enticing hunters to Jenolan, where they could thoroughly enjoy shooting literally any bird or animal that they encountered. 

In 1888, a Sydney Morning Herald article said, “Young fellows often bring their guns and try their inexperienced hands at lyre-bird, wallaby and platypus shooting, and find good appetites at any rate.”

In 1899 a decline in rock-wallabies was first observed.  By the 1920s, through the good work of Chief Guide, James Wiburd, all wildlife on the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve had become protected.  

In 1929, a Grafton Daily Examiner article, said “This taming of the wild has been portion of the life’s work of James Carvosso Wiburd, the snowy-haired, benevolent and beloved superintendent of the caves.  He is a second St. Francis of Assisi, and his tall, hatless figure is known to every bird and animal in the 36 square miles sanctuary which surrounds Jenolan, and which he persuaded the Government to declare a home for the birds, animals, reptiles and flowers he loves and protects.”

However, this protection also included feral animals.  By 1930, rabbits from the Jenolan Karst Conservation Reserve were driving local farmers crazy. And by 1960, foxes and feral cats had all but wiped out Jenolan’s colony of Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies.

In 1965, to protect the wallabies from predators, a substantial electrified enclosure was built among the cliffs on the Reserve, away from the visitors.  Much of the work was done by cave guides, in their own time and at minimal government expense.  Thirty-five wallabies were placed in the enclosure. 

The population grew and between 1980 and 1988, groups of wallabies were released from the enclosure.  By 1988, the wallaby population in the enclosure had built up to 80. However, many were becoming sick, for reasons which were unclear - possibly from overcrowding or possibly from a disease called Lumpy Jaw.  Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies eat mainly grass, although they can eat other vegetable matter if grass is not available (as seen after the recent bushfires). In 1988, although the wallabies were fed on a carefully planned diet, and visitors were asked to not feed them, Lumpy Jaw could have been present – a result of taking processed foods from the hands of doting tourists.  Because the wallabies were not thriving, a group of well-meaning environmentalists released the wallabies and destroyed the enclosure.  Unfortunately, in the wild, predators gradually reduced the wallaby population down to only seven. So in 1992 the remaining wallabies were captured and put back into the rebuilt enclosure. 

Since 1999, Jenolan’s Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby colony has been monitored, using DNA analysis of faecal pellets, radio tracking and remote cameras, to monitor survival, movement and successful breeding.

In 2001, the National Parks & Wildlife Service (NPWS) started implementing the Fox Threat Abatement Plan, and Jenolan was a priority site for fox control.  The intensive fox control program was so successful that by 2007 the captive wallabies were released from the enclosure into a fox-free Jenolan Valley, where they have since thrived.  In 2010, several young captive-bred wallabies were introduced to the Jenolan colony to improve genetic diversity.

Today there are over 100 brush-tailed rock wallabies in the wild in the Jenolan Valley. The NPSW registers, tags and names all new joeys.  (At Jenolan, all wallaby names start with the letter ‘T’.) Also, they regularly catch, measure, weigh and examine the wallabies. Wallabies are no longer tame. All staff and visitors are asked to not approach or feed them, so that they learn to forage for themselves.

Visitors who tour Jenolan’s Lucas Cave are delighted to sometimes spot shy Brush-Tailed Rock Wallabies in and around the cave entrance. (Although most of Jenolan's old, heat-producing cave lighting has been replaced by cool LEDs , the rock wallabies  still like to find the old warm lights and sit near them in Winter.)  Visitors may also spot them in the Devils Coach House Cave.  The old enclosure fence is still standing, and its remains can be seen if you stroll along the shady McKeown’s Valley Track (Healing Waters Walk).

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