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Can wild asses stop bushfires? Sydney scientists unite with Kimberley farmer to stop donkey kill order

Mr Henggler aims to build a sustainable land-use model for the station, which is only accessible by foot or air. The Durack Range was painted in the 1950s by Sidney Nolan as a landscape of sharp-edged red hills but Kachana itself benefits from a river and high levels of annual sub-tropical rainfall the region experiences.

Part of the land management model includes keeping a group of wild donkeys within a 20 square kilometre patch – equivalent to 2.6 per cent of the lease – in an area where the cattle won’t run but would otherwise be ripe for bushfires.

The Hengglers say they shoot any donkey which leaves the valley and might wander off to neighbouring properties but do not have a fence that could keep them on Kachana. The family estimates the valley could handle the nutritional needs of about 120 to 150 donkeys.

A brief history of burros in Australia

Donkeys are found throughout the country and were first introduced as pack animal on the colonial frontiers in 1866 by Sir Thomas Elder, who is also famous for bringing camels down under.

However, they were phased out in the 1930s for automobiles and grew in numbers over the decades in the Australian outback before getting to the point of competing with cattle for feed.

DPIRD says donkeys have also been linked to soil erosion and fouling water holes where other animals drink.

A culling program in WA was started about 40 years ago when donkeys numbered somewhere between 250,000 and 300,000 in the Kimberley alone.

Donkey numbers have now been cut down to about 10,000 in the Kimberley using management tools such as the ‘Judas collar’, where an individual ass is tracked by aerial shooters who follow it to larger herds and kill all except the one with the tracker, which will then seek out more groups, and repeat the process.

The Kimberley Rangelands Biosecurity Association, a group made up of landholders in the region with programs part-funded by the government, has spent more than $8.4 million since 1978 on its donkey initiatives which it says has resulted in a $268 million benefit.

A cost-benefit analysis completed two years ago recommended the culling continue at the current or an increased level with a focus on the North Kimberley.

The Kachana argument

Mr Henggler’s son Bobby told WAtoday because the donkeys were not competing for food with the cattle it made sense to leave them in place, since they were stopping intense fires and cycling vegetation.

“The main reason we were happy with them is they were happy to go into the hills and the rocky country where the cattle wouldn’t readily go,” he said.

Bobby said they noticed the country the donkeys were in was starting to look better than the areas they were not, which prompted the station to reach out to researchers around the country.

Kachana Station is located in the Durack Range in the East Kimberley.

Kachana Station is located in the Durack Range in the East Kimberley.Credit:Kachana Station

University of Technology Sydney ecologist Arian Wallach is one of the scientists who have been working at the station and is known for her research that tries to reset the idea of introduced species in Australia as a problem to be eradicated.

There are more than 40 million donkeys estimated to be scattered around the world but only a few hundred of its not so distant ancestor, the African wild ass, are still alive.

Dr Wallach said the donkey was one of the greatest conservation successes of all time when a near-extinct species was flourishing not just in the Kimberley and Australia but around the world including countries like the United States.

The ecologist said she had completed three field trips to Kachana, collected camera trap data, and included the station as a research site for several of her scientific grant applications related to donkey projects.

“The plan is to make comparisons to our field site in the United States, there are several research questions,” Dr Wallach said.

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“One is how donkeys influence vegetation and therefore fire, another one is how they influence vegetation communities and therefore endangered species, the third one is how their populations are regulated, both internally, through their own social interactions, and predation by dingoes.”

Ideas around Kimberley land management have challenged the concept of the region as an “untouched” environment, with recent research such as a 2017 paper suggesting setting baseline targets for biodiversity conservation based on current vegetation levels may not be desirable.

This was because it had been found the introduction of cattle grazing and changes to fire regimes meant the region shifted, with shrubby vegetation becoming less prevalent and giving way to more grasses favoured by livestock.

Dr Wallach said choosing a particular point in the past to try and take vegetation back to was just an arbitrary choice and glorifying a section in time simply because people chose to do so.

She said research had shown wild donkeys had similar traits to extinct Australian megafauna like giant wombats, which could dig holes and create new water sources.

Dr Wallach said she had been prepared to forgo other Australian donkey research sites for Kachana, but the cull order would also kill off any further scientific donkey work at the station.

Containment tensions

UTS and University of Sydney researchers have written to DPIRD asking the government reconsider any cull.

Agriculture and Food Minister Alannah MacTiernan said the department had sought clarification on how the interests of the environment and third parties could be protected during projects.

Kachana Station owner Chris Henggler with a pack donkey.

Kachana Station owner Chris Henggler with a pack donkey. Credit:Facebook

“We are strong supporters of research and novel landscape management techniques, but these cannot negatively impact neighbouring properties,” she said.

“I would have expected an ethics committee at the university would have required a plan for this, and also for biosecurity approvals given the current legal status of donkeys.”

A DPIRD spokeswoman said it had not been presented with any research proposals for consideration, but Dr Wallach countered that the department had been aware of what was going on but did not want to be a part of it.

The spokeswoman said any research involving a declared pest species needed appropriate containment measures to stop the risk of spread onto neighbouring properties.

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Ms MacTiernan said the department had asked for more than two years for Kachana to put in place reasonable measures to control the donkeys, but the requests had been refused.

The government’s argument does not wash with Bobby Henggler, however, who said the station was happy with the containment measures it had where donkeys which left the valley were shot.

He said putting in a fence was unrealistic because of the terrain and the maintenance costs related to wet season damage from the region’s annual deluges.

Bobby said while donkey numbers in the Kimberley had initially needed to be controlled it seemed to have reached a point where management could be done at a smaller scale.

“Provide there was an ongoing management strategy it could almost be at a station to station level,” he said.

“In our view containment has been achieved and demonstrated for 20-odd years.”

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