April 7, 2009 | 1
Rabbits aren’t exactly popular in Australia, where invasive European rabbits have wreaked havoc on the country’s ecology. And so, with Easter just days away, many Australian children will be celebrating not with the traditional Easter bunny, but with the Easter bilby, as the nation uses the holiday to to celebrate—and raise funds to protect—one of its most endemic, and most endangered species, the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis).
"If we had to focus on, celebrate and recognize an animal at this time of the year as opposed to an Easter bunny, let it be an Easter bilby," Australia’s Environmental Minister Peter Garrett, former frontman for the band Midnight Oil, recently told schoolchildren. "It’s a terrific opportunity for us to think in different ways about how we best look after our endangered Australian animals."
Once common throughout most of Australia, the bilby has now almost disappeared, due in no small part to invasive species like cats and foxes, which kill and dine on the tiny, defenseless marsupials. Then there are European rabbits, which compete with the bilby for food and habitat – another reason why the Easter Bunny isn’t as popular in Australia anymore. There are now just 600 to 700 bilbies left in the wild, according to the Save the Bilby Fund, a group based in Charleville, Australia, devoted to sparing the bilby from extinction.
Another bilby species, the lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura) went extinct in the 1950s.
But those numbers may soon be on the rise, thanks to the efforts of zoologists Peter McRae and Frank Manthey, known as "The Bilby Brothers." Four years ago, McRae and Manthey and the Queensland’s Environmental Protection Agency created a bilby breeding program in Currawinya National Park in Queensland. Starting with just three females and a single male, the program has been a smashing success. The predator-proof, 10.4 mile (29 square-kilometer) enclosure now contains at least 42 bilbies, including a number of juveniles, McRae told Australia’s Courier Mail.
McCrae says he’s optimistic the population will continue to climb and that when it ‘s several hundred strong the critters can begin to be returned to the wild.
"My aim was not just to have the things locked in a big enclosure," he says, "but to get them back out into the wider landscape of that area. That is the next step."
Image: Bilby © Chris Crouch via Flickr