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The game of survivor for a new Easter  icon
In some of Australia's most unforgiving terrain,
 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 was overpowering.

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 surviving population.

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 eight years.

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 raised.

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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