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Bringing back the bilby

Bilbies are among the most reproductive in the animal kingdom. And that just might help their comeback.

Two bilbies in a hat at Currawinya National Park. ( the Bilby Fund)

BRISBANE, Australia — On a 7,100-acre patch of land in a remote corner of Australia, a furry little long-eared animal that might well have been designed in Stephen Spielberg's animation lab is edging back from the brink of extinction.

The endangered is the bilby (also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot). Many bilby fans say this beloved Australian marsupial reminds them of Yoda, the floppy-eared Star Wars character.

Before white settlers first came to Australia in 1788, many millions of bilbies lived alongside Australia’s other idiosyncratic native marsupials — kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, koalas. But by the late 1990s, alarmed conservationists realized that a population that was once spread across some 70 percent of this vast continent had dwindled to almost nothing.

The first settlers were British convicts and their guards, sent to populate a land inhabited by native peoples but claimed by London. Gold discoveries later attracted many thousands from North America and Asia.

The immigrants brought with them animals that quickly became the bilby’s enemies. Deadliest by far were imported pet cats and their feral descendants. Foxes, imported by English military officers and landed gentry who wanted something for their foxhounds to hunt, also found the bilby tasty. The carnage that followed first wiped out the bilby’s smaller relative, the lesser bilby, believed to have gone extinct in about 1950. Over the past decade, dedicated naturalists working on slender budgets believe they may have halted yet another extinction.

The headquarters of the bilby’s comeback is at fenced off acreage in the Currawinya National Park, 420 miles northwest of Brisbane. Though the bilby cannot yet be considered really safe, there is growing optimism about its future.

One of the main reasons, perhaps, is the bilby’s mating habits. The little grey and white creatures are among the most reproductive in the animal kingdom.