July 2021 marked a frustrating anniversary for our team in the Pilliga. For three years they have been locked in an endless battle of hide and seek with one very sly fox, delaying planned reintroductions of key species into the 5,800-hectare fenced area.
AWC is working in partnership with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, as part of the NSW Government’s Saving our Species program, to reintroduce regionally-extinct mammals to the Pilliga, including: Brush-tailed Bettong (Bettongia penicillata), Plains Mouse (Pseudomys australis), Shark Bay Bandicoot (Perameles bougainville) and Western Quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii).
Feral predators have already been eradicated from within a specially constructed 680-hectare breeding area, enabling the successful reintroduction of two regionally-extinct species to the Pilliga: the Greater Bilby ( Macrotis lagotis) and the Bridled Nailtail Wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata). These species, and others yet to be translocated, can only be released into the larger, 5,800 hectare fenced area once it has been declared completely feral predator-free.
Learn more: Bilbies make historic return to the Pilliga (2018)
Learn more: Locally-extinct Bridled Nailtail Wallabies return to the Pilliga (2019)
Learn more: Benchmarking AWC’s progress at two NSW National Parks (2020)
Outfoxed, but not giving up
The fox, believed to be male and nicknamed Rambo, has thwarted the team’s best efforts to remove him, and encounters have been few and far between.
“We have, on average, 97 cameras permanently deployed on the sanctuary, and this fox shows up approximately every 3 months on them,” says AWC Pilliga Operations Manager Wayne Sparrow.
“But only two AWC staff members have caught a fleeting glimpse of him in the flesh – once in 2019 when he wandered into a staff camp at night, and once in 2020 when he was flushed out with scent tracking dogs. He’s given us the slip ever since.”
Since his suspected birth in 2018 Rambo has consistently evaded the Pilliga team despite 8,000 trap nights, 41 shoot nights (or 465 shoot hours), 2785 baits, and more than 25 days of scent-tracking dogs. The team also took to the air with 14 thermal drone nights and 4 hours aerial shoot nights, but to no avail.
While the average age of a red fox is 5-6 years, waiting Rambo out siege-style is also not the answer.
“We believe this animal was a young kit when we locked the fence in 2018. That makes him about 4 years old now, so he is getting up there in age,” says Wayne.
“He’s grown up being targeted for removal – hence his shy nature. We also need to remember he is now the sole apex predator in an area with an abundant food and water source. He no longer needs to fight for his territory, so it is fair to think he will live longer than average and could well have several years left in him.”
The team’s next plan of attack is to try again with scent tracking dogs, but this time over a longer time period.
Since foxes were introduced for recreational hunting in the mid-1800s they have spread across most of Australia, playing a major role in the decline of a number of native species. They are highly efficient hunters and resourceful scavengers and may kill more prey than they can consume.
In the Pilliga, Rambo poses a threat to a number of threatened mammals, birds and reptiles, such as the Black-striped Wallaby, and the endemic Pilliga Mouse. His continued presence delays plans for the reintroduction of key species into the region, and delays the release of Bilbies and Bridled Nailtail Wallabies into the wider 5,800-hectare Pilliga project area.
AWC leads Australia’s most extensive research into the ecology of feral cats and foxes. The most recent phase of this research produced a new tool for reliably measuring the population density of cats and foxes in open landscapes, as discussed in this episode of AWC in Conversation: