Looking for Matakupay – The Platypus Project

Patrick Simmons

Chain Reaction #119, Nov 2013, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/119

FoE Melbourne's Barmah Millewa Collective and members of the Wadi Wadi community have set up a community-based project to research platypus populations in North-West Victoria. Along the stretch of the Murray River near Swan Hill and the Nyah-Vinifera River Red Gum forest, there have been no official sightings of platypus in the past 10 years. For members of the Wadi Wadi community, the elusive platypus, or Matakupay, has a special cultural significance as one of their totem animals. Community member Jacinta Chaplin recalls: "When I was about thirteen, my uncle showed me the platypus, and he said 'This is your totem, you've got to protect it, always make sure it's safe'." The long-term aspirations of this project are to bring Matakupay back to Wadi Wadi country.

We've been working with the Australian Platypus Conservancy's (APC) Geoff Williams to research the feasibility of doing this. Because so little is known about platypus populations around Swan Hill and Nyah, the first step is researching all past sightings in the area to get a good idea of where platypus have been seen, and where they might be seen in the future. This basically involves putting the word out, and speaking to Traditional Owners, farmers, fishermen, kayakers and anyone else who may have seen platypus in the past.

During the recent project launch in Swan Hill, some of the Collective joined Geoff and Wadi Wadi community member Cain Chaplinin visiting 150 students at three schools in the area, to raise awareness about the cultural values of the platypus and how to protect it. Geoff also led a public talk by the Murray River explaining where and how to look for platypus, and how to tell them apart from native water rats.

Conversations quickly started about where platypus might be, and what people in the area can do to restore populations in the area. This has developed into a series of volunteer-based group platypus watches along sections of Murray River and its branches to look for platypus and record any sightings. In combination with the historical sightings this will provide some baseline information about platypus populations in the area, which can then be used to plan future stages of the project or to lobby regional water managers about the need for native revegetation and improved environmental flows.

So far we've had some encouraging anecdotal evidence that platypus have been seen in billabongs of the Nyah-Vinifera river red gum forests, and more recently in the Little Murray River further upstream. Given the long home range of platypus, which can travel up to 7 kms in search of food, it is possible populations have travelled further downstream of the Gunbower Lagoons, the closest stable population of platypus. We know from speaking to members of the Wadi Wadi community that platypus have been seen in Nyah-Vinifera about 10 years ago, and Geoff Williams has indicated this would be a feasible platypus habitat, depending on the seasonal release of environmental flows into the forests.

Studies like these and our previous vegetation surveys in Nyah-Vinifera are small puzzle pieces in building a case for better environmental flows for the river red gum forest, which could act as a potential habitat for platypus migrating downstream from the Gunbower lagoons. Calling attention to iconic species can draw different people together in conservation efforts, and can also be symbolic of the broader need to protect vital ecosystems along the Murray. It is early days, but tying in a local community project to this broader discussion may help in improving environmental flows for Nyah-Vinifera and bring Matakupay back to Wadi Wadi Country.

If you have seen a Platypus in the Swan-Hill region or want to get involved in the project please contact us: [email protected]

Web: http://matakupay-platypusproject.com/project