Kangaroo Island dunnarts have been captured on camera at a new site that miraculously escaped surrounding bushfires, giving hope to conservationists working to bring the species back from the brink of extinction.
Sensor cameras have spotted the tiny mouse-sized marsupials at three locations on the 550-acre private property in the De Mole River catchment on the north-west of Kangaroo Island.
Heidi Groffen, an ecologist with Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, said she was "jumping for joy" when she saw the photos.
"These images prove that this property is supporting a dunnart population. It's exciting and a credit to farm fire units and firefighters that this critical habitat escaped the flames, as surrounding properties to the south, east and west were badly burnt," said Ms Groffen.
With funding from WWF-Australia, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife has installed sensor cameras to help survey and monitor dunnarts on the new site and other private properties in the De Mole catchment.
Before the devastating summer bushfires, it was estimated that between 300-500 dunnarts lived on Kangaroo Island.
More than 90 per cent of their habitat was scorched in the fires, prompting fears for the survival of the critically endangered species.
"This is a species that won't survive without a helping hand. That's why it's so important to monitor and manage threats in these few sites that are providing a refuge for the remaining dunnarts," said Darren Grover, WWF-Australia's Head of Healthy Land and Seascapes.
Predators like feral cats are a major threat to the surviving dunnarts, who have lost much of their natural shelter in the fires.
"When a bushfire rips through an area it can destroy the understorey and all the little hiding places that species like the dunnart rely on. This makes the surviving animals particularly vulnerable to feral cats that are on the move and looking for new hunting grounds," said Mr Grover.
Feral cat management, such as trapping and humane destruction, is underway and Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife has also installed shelter tunnels on another fire-affected site using funds from WWF-Australia.
The tunnels appear to be working, as new camera sensor photos show dunnarts using the shelters on the private property called the Western River Refuge.
"The tunnels are providing a little extra protection while the burnt bushland regenerates. The dunnarts can forage at night, take shelter during the day and escape from feral cats and other predators like raptors and goannas," said Ms Groffen.
While it is still unclear how many Kangaroo Island dunnarts perished in the fires, Ms Groffen said there could be as few as 50 individuals remaining.
Continuing its monitoring work in line with COVID-19 restrictions, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife is working with conservation partners and local landholders to establish a robust threat reduction program across the De Mole catchment.
"This species has a bumpy road ahead, but if we can keep working with landholders to identify dunnart sites and reduce the impact of feral predators then I think there's reason to be hopeful," said Ms Groffen.
"We don't want any more species to become extinct on our watch."
People can help WWF-Australia continue to deploy funds to care for wildlife and restore habitat lost in the fires by donating at https://www.wwf.org.au/get-involved/bushfire-emergency