April 19, 2014 | 9
Easter in Australia is pretty much the same as Easter elsewhere in the world. We do Easter egg hunts and put sad-looking yellow chickens with loose eyespots on display in straw nests and eat nothing but chocolate for three days straight. But there’s a war going on, and the Easter Bunny is at the centre of it.
The relationship between rabbits and Australia has always been strained at best. They were introduced in the 18th century with the First Fleet and following an 1859 release, spread out and bred like, well, rabbits. Since then, they’ve made themselves at home across 4.5 million square kilometres in the southern two thirds of the continent, and they’ve been wreaking havoc wherever they go. They’ve have been blamed as the single biggest factor in the loss of our native species thanks to competition of resources, alteration of the structure and composition of vegetation, and land degradation. And if you want to make friends with an Australian farmer, do not tell them about how cute you think bunnies are.
In 1907, a 1,833 kilometre-long rabbit-proof fence was built in Western Australia in an attempt to contain them. It took six years to build, and when it was completed, it was the single longest unbroken fence in the world. It was joined by two additional fences, but they never quite did the job. In the 1950s, the myxoma virus, which causes myxomatosis, was introduced and reduced the rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in two years. Resistance crept up around the 1970s and ‘80s, and in 1996, the calicivirus was introduced. It had escaped quarantine the previous year to kill 10 million rabbits in the space of eight weeks. The deaths from both viruses are slow and horrendous, causing skin tumours, blindness, paralysis and bleeding from the eyes. Unfortunately this is what it took to protect our native species.
All of which is to say it’s not surprising that Australia would allow a rival Easter representative to get a look in, and this one’s just as fluffy, just as long-eared, and while it technically can’t hop, it sure can gallop.
“They look like they’ve been stuck together by a committee,” bilby conservationist, Tony Friend, once told the ABC. “Huge ears that belong to a rabbit, soft grey fur, a tail that’s stuck out the back like a tufted pencil, and they gallop around like a rocking horse. They’re so different to any other animals.”
It’s thought that around 20 million years ago, the bilby branched off from its closest relative, the bandicoot. Today, it retains its very bandicoot-like elongated muzzle, but has a much longer tail with a lovely white tip, bigger ears, and a softer, silkier pelt. Growing up to 55cm long, they’re about the size of a rabbit, and they’re just as good at digging – they routinely construct spiral-shaped burrows up to three metres long and almost two metres deep. Their burrows need to be this deep because bilbies are desert-dwellers, keeping cool underground during the day and foraging for food after dark. They’re opportunistic feeders, taking up just about anything with their long, anteater-like tongues, including seeds, fungi, bulbs, grasshoppers, beetles, spiders and termites.
They’re also great at sex. Bilbies are able to breed from just six months old, and can produce around eight offspring every year. Their mating sessions can last for 18 hours at a time. The female’s gestation period lasts just two weeks, after which her bean-sized newborns will wriggle their way to her backward-opening pouch, which prevents soil from getting in when she’s burrowing. The still-developing joeys will live here for around 80 days, growing stronger and furrier, until they’re big enough to emerge and live in the burrow.
Way back in 1968, a nine-year-old girl named Rose-Marie Dusting wrote a story called “Billy The Aussie Easter Bilby”. When she turned 20, she published it as a book, and over the following decade, her story inspired much public interest in this peculiar little marsupial. In 1991, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia began an Easter Bilby campaign to replace the Easter Bunny, and while the campaign has since died down politically, a number of chocolate makers still distribute bilbies with their chocolate bunnies each Easter. And there’s arguably no better way of getting our kids interested in our native wildlife than covering them in chocolate.
This is especially important, because our bilbies are struggling. Two hundred years ago, the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis), occupied more than 70% of mainland Australia. Since then, it’s disappeared from 80% of its former range, with a few remaining populations scattered in arid and semi-arid areas in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, and Queensland. The lesser bilby (Macrotis leucura) went extinct some time around the 1950s.
While the greater bilby’s numbers across Australia are enough for it to be considered ‘vulnerable’, in Queensland it’s classified as endangered, with a wild population of between just 600 and 700 individuals living within a 100,000 square kilometre area. Reintroduction programs have been carried out by various state governments in earnest, with populations released successfully into reserves in South Australia, Western Australia, and Queensland. The global population is thought to be sitting at around 10,000 individuals.
Here are some bilby joeys at Adelaide Zoo: