From the beginning of February to mid-March, I will be travelling Down Under. As such, I have prepared a series of pieces somewhat dedicated to Australia and New Zealand, which I’ll post on a weekly basis as usual. The posts will be roughly themed around my itinerary; my first stop is Western Australia so the first couple of articles will be related to this state. This one is dedicated to the quokka, the lovely creature of Rottnest Island.
On December 29, 1696, the Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh landed on a small island off the coast of Perth, Western Australia. On noticing that the place was populated by what he thought to be giant rats, he named the island “rat’s nest” (Rattennest in Dutch). Witson, one of de Vlamingh’s men, reported “rats nearly as big as cats” with “a pouch below their throats into which one could put one’s hand, without being able to understand to what end nature had created the animal like this.”
Today, if you go to Rottnest Island — the modern name of de Vlamingh’s “rat’s nest” — you will be welcomed by cute little creatures known as quokkas. If the Dutch mistaken them for giant rats, present day tourist authorities describe them as being like “pint-sized kangaroos” which are “very popular with the tourists.”
Rottnest is one of the few areas in the world where the quokka, endemic to the south-west of Australia, can be found. It is also the place with the largest population of quokkas with the number of creatures estimated to be between 8,000 and 12,000, about 5 per hectare on average.
Overall, the quokka population is small and restricted to limited spaces so the species is classified as vulnerable. Outside Rottnest, the main threats to the animals are predatory species such as foxes, feral pigs or dingoes. In the island, the quokkas have no natural predators, although Aussie rugby players have previously caused trouble!
The quokkas are marsupials hence the pouch that Witson reported. Similarly to kangaroos, baby quokkas suckle from their mothers in the pouch where they are kept for a few months after birth. Like other marsupials, these small short-tailed wallabies are herbivores: adult quokkas eat the leaves and bark of small trees and shrubs as well as grass and succulent plants.
While you might be tempted to feed quokkas if you visit Rottnest, be aware that you can be fined for doing so as the animals may become ill on eating bread, chips, meat or other unsuitable snacks.
Looking at the photo above, it is easy to understand why these animals are so popular. Adorable, chubby and furry are words that come to mind. The animals are also well-liked because they have no fear of humans: they are extremely tame and barely react to being handled.
Therefore, it is no surprise that some people in Perth decided to pay homage to these creatures. And because we are talking about Australia, it is also no surprise that such tribute took the form of a giant quokka. (If you are not familiar with Australia’s obsession with big things, you should read Bill Bryson’s Down Under (UK)/In a Sunburned Country (US) or click here for a summary.)
But local Rottnest authorities felt the island did not need the statue. So, instead, The Big Quokka was placed next to a wharf-cargo shed on Victoria Quay in Fremantle, south of Perth. However, as a local resident reports, “the management of the facility reportedly decided that The Big Quokka didn’t match their opinion of what comprised good taste and insisted that it be removed not long after it was installed.”
The Big Quokka’s whereabouts are now a mystery.