Mr Bilby can take you
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Save the Bilby page
The game of survivor for a new Easter
In some of Australia's most unforgiving
the embattled bilby is trying to make a comeback
- with the help of a small band of dedicated supporters.
article by Greg Roberts (January 6 2003)
When Peter McRae opened the door of the caravan, which doubled
as his field research laboratory, after a few months' absence, the stench
Everything inside that was vaguely destructible had been destroyed. Foam
boxes, wooden drawers, paper files. They had been shredded into countless
pieces by long-haired rats. Then the rats, more than 50 of them, trapped
in debris of their own making, starved to death.
Such is life in the 200,000-hectare Astrebla Downs National Park in Queensland's
remote south-west corner. It doesn't come much more inhospitable than this.
In summer, the gibber and mitchell grass plains - there are few trees - bake
in greater than 55-degree temperatures.
The wiry Australian National University graduate has been studying the nation's
largest surviving colony of bilbies in these parts for 14 years.
Few knew what a bilby was when McRae, 52, a Queensland National Parks and
Wildlife Service senior zoologist, set out to find what makes this marsupial
bandicoot tick. The bilby is instantly recognisable today. That unlikely
snout and those floppy ears have made chocolate Easter bilbies so popular,
they are eroding sales of the traditional Easter bunny. And the bilby image
increasingly peers out from T-shirts, cups, posters and calendars.
The bilby's fame is spreading fast. McRae and Frank Manthey, McRae's colleague
at the parks service in the western Queensland town of Charleville, featured
in a recent episode of the ABC's Australian Story. And a documentary on the
two men and their efforts to save the bilby - Bilby Brothers, The Men Who
Killed The Easter Bunny, by Brisbane film maker Larry Zetlin, beat 18 finalists
at Germany's NaturVision Film Festival in September. Vermont University in
the United States has even established a Bilby Appreciation Society.
Swirls of dust whip across the gibber plain surrounding the hotchpotch of
tin sheds that make do as the Astrebla Downs research station. A sinking
sun finally sends hordes of maddening bush flies to bed. Nothing disturbs
the horizon except a blaze of purple and red in the sky. "This is one of
the most beautiful places you can be in," says McRae (pictured above). He
strokes his ample beard as he relaxes in a bathtub attached to an artesian
bore at what he has dubbed the Davenport Hilton. At night, he can see the
lights of cars 60 kilometres away on the nearest road. "It's terrific."
Terrific maybe, but hazardous, too. Five species of deadly snake inhabit
the vicinity of the Davenport Hilton, including the western taipan, the world's
most venomous reptile.
McRae works here, alone, for weeks at a stretch. The government won't pay
for a field assistant. If he is bitten by a western taipan or a king brown
snake (a skin of which he once found draped over his fridge), the Flying
Doctor probably wouldn't make it in time.
Astrebla Downs was known simply as the Store Paddock when it was part of
the AMP's sprawling Davenport Downs cattle property. The insurance giant
handed it over reluctantly in 1995 to the then Goss Labor Government - which
wanted to protect the bilbies in a national park - in return for another
holding. The park is home to about 350 bilbies, one-third of Queensland's
The species once foraged over 70 per cent of Australia, but over 170 years,
predation from introduced foxes and cats, and competition from introduced
rabbits has reduced its range to a few scattered colonies. Those in Western
Australia and the Northern Territory are seriously endangered by foxes and
rabbits. Colonies near Alice Springs have vanished in the past decade.
Astrebla's harshness may be the bilby's saving grace. The plains are so desolate
that neither foxes nor rabbits have penetrated them to any extent. Cats do
thrive in the park, however, and require constant vigilance. National parks
staff shoot them on sight. Occasional explosions of cat numbers, associated
with plagues of long-haired rats, threaten not just bilbies but rare birds
such as plains wanderers and yellow chats. In 1992, the army was called in
during a particularly extensive feline invasion; 417 cats were shot along
a 15-kilometre stretch of bore drain in three days.
Left to their own accord, bilbies are masterful survivors. They do not need
much water and sleep during the day in two-metre burrows, which maintain
a constant 25-degree temperature. Emerging after sunset, they eat anything
from seeds and bulbs to cockroaches and mice. During the present drought,
they are eating subterranean termites. The bilby has the shortest gestation
period of any mammal bar one other bandicoot species - 12 days. Females produce
four litters annually. They can breed at six months of age and live to around
Frank Manthey, 64, is an unlikely wildlife conservation champion. After leaving
school at the age of nine, he worked as a ringer on cattle stations along
Cooper's Creek before becoming a kangaroo shooter, working his way up the
industry ladder to oversee the annual slaughter of half a million kangaroos.
The then National Party Queensland Government hired Manthey in 1973 for his
expertise after the Whitlam Government banned export of kangaroo products
and forced the states to prepare kangaroo management plans.
At Astrebla, in the company of McRae, Manthey saw his first wild bilby in
a spotlight beam, late one night in 1998. "I thought that there was no way
we could let something like that disappear,'' says the burly Manthey. "I
was enchanted. I knew straight away that I was going to do everything I could
to save that animal. It changed my life.''
The parks service has for several years run a captive bilby
breeding program in Charleville. Fed largely on dog biscuits and birdseed,
the animals are thriving. They live in large enclosures with native vegetation
where they dig their own burrows and maintain their nocturnal lifestyle.
Breeding has been so successful that staff stopped encouraging reproduction
two years ago. McRae had long hoped to build a predator-free enclosure in
the Currawinya National Park, 700 kilometres south-east of Astrebla in the
heart of the bilby's natural range. The bilby is the token of the Budgati
Aboriginal people from the Currawinya area, where it is thought to have become
extinct around the middle of the last century. McRae's plan was to establish
a viable bilby colony in the enclosure from which the entire 152,000-hectare
park would eventually be repopulated.
In 1999, Manthey launched an appeal, for the estimated $300,000 cost of the
20-kilometre long, two metre-high enclosure, on ABC Radio's Australia
All Over. That pulled in $17,000.
He came up with the idea of "selling'' five-metre fence panels for $20 each.
"I thought that if just 15,000 out of 19 million Australians put that up,
we'd have our fence,'' Manthey says. With the approval of the Parks service,
Manthey started holding public "bilby shows'' where live animals were displayed
and bilby merchandise was sold. He paid for his own accommodation, worked
long hours without overtime and gave up his holidays for the cause. A trickle
of money grew to a steady flow. At the first show in Charleville, he raised
$65; in 10 days during Brisbane's Exhibition, 18 months later, $23,000 was
The chocolate retailer Darrell Lea pitched in, giving a percentage of sales
of its chocolate Easter bilbies to Manthey's Save The Bilby Fund. That raised
$40,000 last year. Last Easter, says Darrell Lea marketing manager Bruce
Goldman, 120,000 chocolate bilbies were sold at the chain's 600 outlets.
Four chocolate bilbies were sold for every chocolate Easter bunny. In 1996,
12 chocolate bunnies were sold for every chocolate bilby. "There's a definite
sales trend towards bilbies,'' Goldman says. That pleases bilby conservationist
Jan Oliver. "Australia has spent trillions on trying to get rid of rabbits,
yet we still celebrate them through the Easter bunny,'' Oliver says. "It
is appropriate that the bunny be replaced by the bilby.''
Before Manthey started his fundraising, the Coles Myer supermarket chain
had for several years directed chocolate bilby sales profits to bilby conservation
projects. But the funding was stopped in 2000. Says Oliver: "Because of Coles,
there remains a public perception that if you buy a chocolate bilby anywhere,
you are helping the cause, but that's not the case . . . Coles dropped it
like a hot chocolate, leaving projects in the lurch. It was very disappointing.''
A Coles spokesperson said that "after long thought and with due notification'',
Coles had decided to direct its Easter charity donations to a "family-based''
charity - the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Manthey eventually raised his $300,000. A fully electrified fence, powered
by solar panels and topped with trapwires to trip predators trying to jump
it, was completed last year with the help of 150 volunteers from Conservation
Volunteers Australia. "They put up with the dust and the heat and the flies,''
McRae says. "It was strange, it affected some of them quite deeply on an
emotional level. People from Germany, Japan. They didn't want to leave.''
McRae says the project is a victory for people power. "We broke all the rules,''
he says. "But in the end, we succeeded.''
Twenty foxes in the enclosure, and hundreds more throughout the Currawinya
park, have been shot. Monitoring is continuing, to ensure that all foxes
and cats within the fence are eliminated.
Forty tagged bilbies, in four groups of 10, will be monitored by satellite
transmitters and released in the Currawinya enclosure early next year. Meanwhile,
fundraising efforts continue unabated. Money from the bilby fund is being
spent on a program to save the endangered northern hairy-nosed wombat. "n
200 years in this country, we have done in 17 species of mammals,'' says
Manthey, who won this year's Australian Geographic Society Conservation Award
for his efforts. "That's not a record any of us can be proud of.''
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