11 November 2020

Border closures and other recent restrictions haven’t stopped Zoos Victoria from continuing vital conservation work.

Even though Healesville Sanctuary, Melbourne Zoo and Werribee Open Range Zoo experienced temporary closures during coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, Zoos Victoria’s conservation programs couldn’t be put on hold. 

When the fate of several native species is hanging in the balance, the show must go on. With planned releases, monitoring efforts and animal transfers all integral to the Fighting Extinction program, the Zoos Victoria team came up with new ways to continue its work when coronavirus (COVID-19) complicated conservation efforts.

Precious cargo

With only 50 Southern Corroboree Frogs left in the wild, the recovery program run by Zoos Victoria and its partners in New South Wales is vital to the survival of this striking alpine amphibian species.

Deon Gilbert, Zoos Victoria Threatened Species Biologist, explains that each year Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary breed thousands of eggs, which are released in Kosciuszko National Park just before winter.

Deon and other members of the recovery team would normally be present for the egg release, but this year things were a little different.

Due to border closures preventing movement between states, Deon had to hand over the eggs to David Hunter from the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) at the VIC–NSW border. Driving from Melbourne to Albury-Wodonga with 2,000 rare amphibian eggs may sound like a tough task, but Deon explains that it’s easier than it sounds.

“Fortunately, the eggs are quite easy to transport. As terrestrial eggs, we didn’t have to worry about water splashing around. Beforehand, we cooled the eggs to prepare them for release into cold, wild habitats. We then packed them into an esky lined with moist substrate called sphagnum moss. As long as the temperature is kept stable, they transport really well,” Deon says.

David received the eggs at the border and transported them to the site where they were successfully released before snow started to fall in Kosciuszko National Park. Deon notes that this release was particularly important since Southern Corroboree Frog numbers were impacted by the bushfires that swept through their habitat earlier this year.

“This year’s release was really critical for the species so we could supplement what was lost through the fires,” says Deon.

“This year’s release was really critical for the species so we could supplement what was lost through the fires.”

“During winter, they bunker down underground completely covered by snow, then resurface in spring. They’re highly toxic so they have no natural predators. They’re quite tough but unfortunately new threats like climate change, bushfires and introduced disease have resulted in their population crashing down to critical levels.”

The breeding program has successfully supplemented wild population numbers while establishing fungus-free populations that are kept in enclosed areas in the wild.

“Without fundraising and support from the public, we wouldn’t be able to continue this crucial work,” says Deon.


Wandering west

Another border run was undertaken by Yvette Pauligk, Natives and Species Coordinator at Werribee Open Range Zoo, who escorted six critically endangered Plains-wanderers to the South Australian border in May.

The captive-bred birds were due to be transferred to a new facility at Monarto Safari Park when COVID-19 hit, causing interruptions to transportation and delaying the arrival of equipment needed to establish a facility for the birds to live and breed in.

“We looked at flying as an option, with the birds going onto passenger planes as special cargo. But those flights ceased due to the pandemic, so we decided to drive them instead,” says Yvette.

After permits were organised, vets conducted a visual health check before carefully placing the birds in boxes,
ready for the six-hour drive to the border. Meagan Thornton, Werribee Open Range Zoo Keeper, accompanied Yvette and the birds in the back seat of the vehicle for the drive to the border – maintaining physical distancing during the trip.