For many, 1967 is a year remembered for the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt. But there was another significant disappearance in Australia that year—one that most people might not have heard of: the last recording sighting of the Lesser Bilby.
In fact, that last sighting was nothing more than the discovery of an old skull found in a nest of a Wedge-tailed Eagle —it’s thought that this tiny marsupial became extinct around 15 years earlier.
First discovered in 1887, the Lesser Bilby was a plucky, tenacious little creature. While it was omnivorous, the Lesser Bilby is thought to have been highly carnivorous and even preyed on small mammals. It had a fearsome character and wouldn’t back down from a fight. Despite this, the Lesser Bilby couldn’t compete with introduced predators like the fox and cat and the competition it faced from the introduction of the rabbit.
Fast forward to today and a similar fight is being fought by the Lesser Bilby’s bigger cousin: the Greater Bilby.
In the wild, it’s a fight for survival. And every Easter, its bunnies vs. Bilbies: two burrowers with big feet and bigger ears fighting for the hearts and minds of Australians.
A vanishing icon
The Greater Bilby is one of Australia’s iconic animals. But unlike the kangaroo or koala, you’d count yourself very lucky if you ever saw one in the wild. The Bilby once occupied vast areas across the Australian mainland but there’s been a significant decline over the last 200 years—and population numbers continue to decrease.
Today the Greater Bilby is listed as extinct in New South Wales; wild populations only exist in small fragmented pockets of Queensland, Northern Territory Western Australia.
“People think of bilbies as an animal that lives in the very remote, very arid areas of Australia but this wasn’t always the case — they used to occupy a wider range of grassland and woodland ecosystems as well,” says Andrew Elphinstone, conservation and recovery manager at Taronga Conservation Society Australia.
“Introduced predators like foxes and feral cats, and competition with introduced rabbits, are a huge threat to the Bilby. Now the Bilby only exists in quite arid parts of the country where these predators and rabbits aren’t as well adapted to surviving in, or managed reserves free of feral predators.”
A sanctuary for survivial
Evidence suggests that a significant reduction in numbers of feral cats and foxes, as well as rabbits, is necessary to ensure the successful long-term survival of the Greater Bilby. And the best strategy to do this right now is through creating predator-free sanctuaries.
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) and Arid Recovery, South Australia are leaders in establishing large feral-free areas and rebuilding populations of Australia’s most threatened mammals including the Greater Bilby.. AWC’s Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in New South Wales is the largest fox and cat free area at 8,000 ha on the Australian mainland while Yookamurra sanctuary, South Australia, is the third largest area.
These sanctuaries are home to what are essentially wild, self-sustaining populations of Bilbies and are playing a critical role in preventing the extinction of the species.
“Breed for release programs are rapidly becoming a core component of endangered species recovery,” says Andrew. “They allow for populations to be secured and sustained orre-introduced to the wild after threats have been reduced. Initiatives like this offer a rare chance for these wonderful marsupials to thrive. The biggest populations of Bilbies you’ll find today are in managed sites run by conservation organisations.”
The big challenge
Setting up these big conservation projects across thousands of hectares is no easy task. After the challenge of finding the land and the finances for it, then there’s the task of removing feral predators from the area—and keeping them out. One answer lies in solidly built and well maintained feral exclusion fencing.
“Conservation fencing is highly effective but very expensive to establish and maintain,” says Andrew. “But once it’s up and running, it’s very good at excluding foxes and cats and creating a haven that allows our most vulnerable native wildlife to thrive.”
The second big challenge is bringing all the various conservation organisations together to work collaboratively towards the same shared goal.
“Taronga hosted the Bilby National Recovery Teamin Sydney for a summit to look at how we can work together to help the Bilby across the country. We currently support recovery projects with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy and other conservation organisations like the Save a Bilby Fund.
The future for Bilbies
The end goal for these projects is to build wild, self-sustaining populations of Bilbies and halt and reverse their decline.
In 2016, Taronga announced a 10-year conservation plan to help endangered species in Australia and Sumatra. One of these species is the Greater Bilby and Taronga is looking at more ways to help save this species.
“Taronga’s been in talks with some new partners to look at what we can do for Bilbies in New South Wales. We’ve got some big plans in development that we will think really help this amazing little animal. Because of this more collaborative and coordinated effort between conservation organisations, I think the future of the Bilby is looking good.”
“A lot of people probably don’t realise that the introduction of rabbits to Australia remains one of the biggest threats to our Bilbies,” says Andrew. They’re competing for food, habitat and other resources. We can’t help the Lesser Bilby but we can do something to help the Greater Bilby—and it does need our help,”
So this Easter, give the bunny the bump and show your support for the Bilby before it’s out for the count.