In 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt disappeared without a trace. But there was another significant disappearance in Australia that year: the last recording sighting of the Lesser Bilby.
But, 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 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 rabbits.
Fast forward to today and a similar fight is being fought by the Lesser Bilby’s bigger cousin: the Greater Bilby.
A vanishing icon
The Greater Bilby is one of Australia’s iconic animals. But, unlike seeing a 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, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
“Today, the Greater Bilby is listed as extinct in New South Wales…”
“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 in managed reserves free of feral predators.”
A sanctuary for survival
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 by 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. At 8,000 hectares, AWC’s Scotia Wildlife Sanctuary in New South Wales is the largest fox and cat-free area on the Australian mainland, while Yookamurra sanctuary in South Australia is the third largest.
“The biggest populations of Bilbies you’ll find today are in managed sites run by conservation organisations.”
These sanctuaries are home to what are essentially wild, self-sustaining populations of Bilbies and they’re 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 or re-introduced to the wild after the 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, comes the difficulty 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 Team in 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.
“We’ve got some big plans in development that we will think really help this amazing little animal.”
“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.
“It’s too late to help the Lesser Bilby but we can do something to help the Greater Bilby before it’s too late. And with this more collaborative and coordinated effort between conservation organisations, I think the future of the Bilby is looking good.”
Find out more about what’s being done to help the Greater Bilby:
Taronga Conservation Society Australia (Taronga) is a not-for-profit conservation organisation that leads in wildlife conservation, science and research; animal welfare and rehabilitation; and environmental education. It operates the award-winning Taronga Zoo in Sydney and Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo.
Taronga’s vision is to secure a shared future for wildlife and people.
Find out more at taronga.org.au.
Story: Adam Browning