More than a century since they were declared extinct in the Australian state of New South Wales, the bilby, a vulnerable marsupial with rabbit-like ears, has been reintroduced into a large, predator-free area in a remote desert park 1,200 kilometers northwest of Sydney. The release is part of a new breeding program at Taronga Western Plains Zoo in New South Wales state.
The release of 10 bilbies is a bold attempt to turn back the clock to a time in Australia when native animals weren’t savaged by feral cats and foxes. Since European colonization, the bilby population has fallen by 80%. Rabbits, another invasive species, also compete with the marsupials for food and shelter. They face other threats from land clearing and bushfires.
Bilbies survive in the wild only in parts of central and western Australia.
A small group, bred in captivity, is being closely monitored in a large, predator-free enclosure at the Sturt National Park in northwest New South Wales.
The Wild Deserts project, which is running the introduction effort, is a collaboration between the University of New South Wales, Australia’s Taronga Conservation Society and the New South Wales state government. It aims to bring back seven mammals, including marsupials the burrowing bettong and the golden bandicoot, that have been declared extinct in the state of New South Wales using large fenced enclosures in the Sturt National Park. Bec West, an ecologist with the project hopes that they can ultimately be taught to avoid feral pests.
“We have a large 10,000-hectare area just next to our predator- and rabbit-free paddocks, but it allows us to manipulate predator densities and it will provide an area where we can release bilbies and allow them the opportunity to learn what these predators are,” West said. “If they were exposed to cats in low densities, they actually learn over time, improve their predator-recognition behavior, and it also then improves their survival when released into other areas with cats.”
It is estimated that feral cats kill 1.4 billion native animals every year in Australia, which has one of the world’s worst mammal extinction rates.
There is hope the tide can be turned with help from projects like those that are reintroducing a pioneering group of bilbies, with their distinctive long black and white tails and large rabbit-like ears, back into the desert.
The bilby is a nocturnal marsupial and digs complex burrows to provide shelter from high summer temperatures and protection from predators.
It is estimated there are about 9,000 bilbies left in the wild in Australia.