Manyallaluk School’s quest for elusive pokipain and rare finch receives Landcare nomination


Like searching for a needle in a haystack, hunting for elusive, wild and endangered animals in one of Australia’s most remote regions was never going to be easy.

The spiny pokipain (echidna) had not been spotted in the area for years.

And the rare, brightly colored Gouldian finch, which has declined dramatically over the 20th century due to habitat loss, is one of the hardest birds to find in Australia.

It was an almost impossible endeavor from the start, but the small school in the isolated community of Manyallaluk, more than 400 kilometers south of Darwin, had heard rumors that it existed nearby.

No one could foresee that the mission would take years to prepare and would require drones, spy cameras and environmental DNA testing.

Now the school is in the running for a major national award.

The projects enabled the students of the Manyallaluk school to acquire new skills.(Provided: Manyallaluk School)

“This first Gouldian finch and the first echidna we saw, there was a lot of celebration,” said school principal Ben Kleinig.

“And because it had taken us quite a few years, it was a moving experience…the effort the kids have put in over the years, it’s quite commendable. Lots of time in the heat, a lot of dust, a lot of sweat.”

“Some of the best ideas sound crazy”

The expedition has its origins in the federal government’s strong push for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects in classrooms around 2015.

The small cohort, consisting of only a principal and a teacher, at Manyallaluk School was distraught.

“We didn’t know much about science. I didn’t know much about technology. And for example, where to start with STEM? said Mr. Kleinig.

“One of the 6th graders at the time said, ‘Can we buy a drone for school?’, which was a pretty crazy idea. But some of the best ideas sound crazy at the time.

“I was terrified of this drone, it sat in the box for a few months, and eventually we kind of dipped our toes in the water.”

A troop moves along a dirt road.
It is a rough path to the waterhole where cameras are set up to capture drinking animals.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

The first project involved mapping the seasonal effects of bison from the sky.

And it went well.

From there sparks of curiosity had kindled; the students wanted to know what else was out there and they had set their sights on some of Australia’s least detected wildlife.

Using spy cameras, the students set to work trying to figure out where the pokipain called home.

For more than two years, they traveled far and wide through the bush, climbing steep rocky outcrops to follow animal tracks, leaving mouth-watering food near cameras in hopes of catching a glimpse of the secret monotreme.

When they finally found one, it was momentous. But they quickly moved on to tracking the Gouldian finch.

“We looked on a map and thought, well, they should be here. How are we going to find them?” said Mr. Kleinig.

A young student looks at the camera with his hands shaped like binoculars.
Allan Farrell is one of the youngest students at Manyallaluk School who learns about the spy environment and technology.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

“We had put spy cameras on natural waterholes without success. We even did environmental DNA testing with Charles Darwin University without success. So it was one hell of a treasure hunt.

“Then we had the idea of ​​making a small artificial water trough.”

Aralise Fredricks, a student at Manyallaluk School, said she had now seen the little bird which was attracting twitchers around the world by the “hundreds”.

“We were so excited when we found some. Shocked,” she said.

“We had never seen one before, and then we pulled out the spy cameras and [caught] their.”

Students stand near their principal in the NT outback.
Ben Kleinig and students Emmalishia Nelson (left) and Aralise Fredricks (middle) searched for animals together.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

Tie up students for the future

Each day, students rush to the rear of a troop to make the dusty journey to the watering station, blaring loud horns on the way to scare away the buffaloes.

As they fall, they stamp their feet loudly on the path to fill buckets with water from the nearby stream, to replenish the small pond.

Then they check which animals the cameras captured the night before.

The technology has captured everything from tiny native mice to donkeys, wild cats, snakes and a plethora of wild birds, said student Emmalishia Nelson.

In a part of the country where remote schools face consistently low attendance rates, Kleinig said the project has boosted learning.

But there was an additional “hidden agenda” even closer to his heart.

A teacher and two students look at a spy camera installed near a water point
It’s always exciting to find out which animals the spy camera has captured.(ABC KatherineRoxanne Fitzgerald)

“What is more important, in my view, more important than the facts, is inspiring children to write, as well as giving them the confidence to try new things and use technology,” said- he declared.

“When kids feel like they’re experts on a particular topic, it really fuels their imagination for writing.

“And also, by giving kids hands-on experience with this kind of equipment, it motivates them for real jobs later in life, like science jobs and ranger jobs.

“It just instills a positive attitude in them that will serve them well later in life.”

Students are now up for the Woolworths Junior Landcare Team Award, which recognizes teams that implement Landcare practices within their local community or school.

The winners will be announced this month.


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