Bringing back the bilby

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.

Bilbies are sexually mature at six months and breed all year round. The female is pregnant for just 12-14 days before a baby (called a joey) appears.

There are usually up to three in a litter. One bilby-fancier describes the newborn as “a baked bean with legs.” The mother keeps them in her pouch until they’re strong enough for the outside world.

They are well catered for inside: The pouch has eight nipples. After about 80 days, the fully formed bilby appears — ready to forage for insects and wild onions and, after about another 100 days, to begin looking for sexual partners. In a year of good weather and abundant food, a female can produce up to eight young. A sexually active 2-year-old female (and there seems to be no other kind of adult female bilby) can be a great-great-great-grandmother.

A couple of dedicated conservationists are given much of the credit for improving the bilby’s prospects: Peter McRae and Frank Manthey.

McRae, a zoologist with Australia’s National Parks and Wildlife Service, first got involved when, in 1988, he was asked to make an initial survey of the Queensland bilby population. “But after 12 months of setting traps and using spotlights at night to locate the nocturnal animals, we found nothing,” he told GlobalPost.

Fearing the worst, he turned for help to a friend and fellow-ranger Manthey, who had formerly made a living shooting the bilby’s much bigger cousin, the kangaroo.

Manthey, whose wife had recently died, was looking for something to put fresh meaning in his life. At first, he had little interest in the bilby. But one night in 1998, after joining McRae with a spotlight trying to locate bilbies — and, he says, “after a few glasses of snake juice” — the bilby’s round eyes, large twitching ears and irresistibly cute manner turned him into a passionate fan.

Says McRae of his mate: “Frank turned from being this 'roo-shooter into a conservation demon. He was driven to saving little furry animals. He drove people crazy. He wouldn’t think about anything else.”

Manthey spoke to “Australian Story,” a government TV program, about his bilby fixation. “Bilbies were mythical to me,” he said, “like Santa Claus or tooth fairies. You hear about 'em, but, really, do they exist?

“But when you see one at the end of the spotlight, you see the color and how graceful and beautiful it is, you start to realize that they were once all over Australia, and now we’re down to this little, tiny pocket. “That really gets to me. Why are we letting something like this disappear from our planet, when we could so easily do something about it?”

With help from the Environmental Protection Agency and Wildlife Preservation Society, Manthey and McRae, who became known as “the Bilby Brothers”, launched a nationwide Save the Bilby fund.

The men took sample bilbies to schools to enlist schoolchildren in the conservation effort. Candy manufacturers produced chocolate bilbies, offering them in place of chocolate bunnies around Easter, with some of the profits going to the fund. Costume jewellers designed bilby necklaces and other long-eared trinkets to be sold through the fund’s website.

The media took up the story. The fund announced that each A$20 ($16.80) would buy a section of Currawinya’s planned predator-proof fence. By 1999 they had more than A$300,000 ($250,000), enough to start building.

The drive continues: National Bilby Day has been inaugurated (on the second Sunday in September, this year: Sept. 13). To date the fund has collected about A$800,000 (US$668,000), said fund coordinator Emily Chandler.

Why save the bilby? Manthey has a response that’s hard to argue with. Certainly, you wouldn’t try to in Australia:

“If you wake up one morning and there’s not a bilby left, Qantas [Australia's national airline] will fly, the banks and post office will open, you’ll still pay tax. All I’m saying is that it’s going to be a sadder world without them.”