Australia

The fight to save one of Australia's most endangered native animals from extinction

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The eastern barred bandicoot has been almost wiped out in the wild by predators. Now, a special project in Victoria is helping to save the marsupial.

Annette Rypalski is sitting in a flower-filled meadow, gently holding a captive-bred eastern barred bandicoot folded into a cloth bag.

The nocturnal marsupial is so shy the bag needs to remain closed while it waits to embark on the adventure of its young life.

It is about to be freed into a predator-fenced grassland at Mt Rothwell, 60 km north of Melbourne.

“Behind our fences they are safe from predators, like foxes and cats, and we hope to build up the population,” Annette Rypalski, bio-diversity director of not-for-profit Odonata, told SBS.

“Of the eight animals that we are releasing, there’s a combination of males and females of various ages, mostly one to two-year-olds.”

Annette Rypalski
Annette Rypalski works to save endangered species.
Supplied

The once ubiquitous eastern barred bandicoot, Perameles gunnii, is now pushed to the brink, listed as critically endangered with around 1,200 animals left on the Australian mainland, most in captivity. Trial releases are underway on several fox-free Victorian islands, and the species has also survived in Tasmania.  

Around 80 per cent of the mainland’s surviving population of eastern barred bandicoots live at Mt Rothwell, north of the You Yangs mountain range, near the town of Little River. 

Mt Rothwell is a sanctuary for endangered animals near Little River in Victoria.
Mt Rothwell is a sanctuary for endangered animals near Little River in Victoria.
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The project Ms Rypalski is working on offers fresh hope. It is creating bandicoot sanctuaries at Mt Rothwell and other properties owned by businessman Nigel Sharp, in partnership with Zoos Victoria.

With a passion for threatened species, Mr Sharp took over Mt Rothwell in 2008, and with his wife Rosemary Etherton, rebuilt the sanctuary from the ground up.

The 450-hectare conservation estate is now part of Odonata, which supports biodiversity impact solutions across Victoria.

“Our breeding stock combines animals that were collected from the wilds of Tasmania with Victorian bandicoots, so they are basically designer bandicoots,” Ms Rypalski said.  

“They are fitter, healthier and integral to the recovery of this species into the future.”

One of the captive-bred bandicoots released at Mt Rothwell.
One of the captive-bred bandicoots released at Mt Rothwell.
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The newest sanctuary is Tiverton, a 1000-hectare working sheep farm at Dundonnell, 200 km west of Melbourne. It will soon become the state’s largest predator-proof estate.

Bandicoots will be released on healthy native grassland never treated with fertiliser, and enclosed behind 18 km of high voltage fencing, built at a cost of more than $500,000.

Conservationists welcome the initiative, hoping it will demonstrate to farmers that agriculture and conservation can mix.

“This is a great model for farmers and it’s wonderful to see that you can make money from your property, and have a conservation outcome to be proud of,” said Professor Brendan Wintle, CEO of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub.

Eastern barred bandicoots will live alongside sheep at Tiverton.
Eastern barred bandicoots will live alongside sheep at Tiverton.
SBS

“Tiverton is a real example of where we can go next. It can be a great role model for landowners across the country.” 

The property is co-owned by Mr Sharp and local farmer Harry Youngman. They are raising funds from private investors to replicate the model across the state.

Under the watch of Maremma sheepdogs, it is hoped the bandicoots and other native animals like quolls will live in harmony with Merino sheep. 

"The bandicoots will thrive here because there are no predators and the swales [undulating grassy mounds] are exactly the habitat they like," Mr Youngman said.

"If I was a bandicoot, I'd be very happy being released at Tiverton."

Harry Youngman with the new 18km fence.
Harry Youngman with the new 18km fence.

It is one of the latest efforts to save eastern barred bandicoots, which have been the subject of a decades-long extinction battle. A captive breeding program began in 1991 after Australia’s mainland wild population dwindled to around 100 animals. 

They’re unique little creatures, say those hoping for their survival.

“A mature [eastern barred] bandicoot is about 30 centimetres long, with a 12cm tail and around four stripes across its rump which helps it blend into grassland,” Ms Rypalski said. 

“It has a pointy little nose which it uses to dig conical holes in the landscape, which allows native vegetation to germinate and increases diversity in grassland, so that we get more flowers and it’s a healthier ecosystem.”

The eastern barred bandicoot uses its pointy nose to dig in the soil.
The eastern barred bandicoot uses its pointy nose to dig in the soil.
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“Each bandicoot turns over three tonnes of soil each year, so they are critical ecosystem engineers.” 

For that reason, though, many suburban gardeners in the past regarded them as pests. 

Until Tiverton, Mt Rothwell was Victoria’s largest feral-free sanctuary. Its fields are stocked with native animals including eastern quolls, which are presumed extinct on the mainland, and brush-tailed rock-wallabies.

Conservationists say the new projects demonstrate joint conservation efforts between the private and public sectors work.

“We cannot do it all from public sector,” Professor Wintle said.

"Tiverton is an example of a wonderful new model that seeks to try and achieve conservation outcomes hand-in-hand with viable business," Professor Wintle said. 

“Most of Australia's land is privately owned and we have active agriculture on more than 75 per cent. So we have to get conservation outcomes on private land and by private people. Otherwise we are going to continue to see the decline in nature and the loss of these amazing unique species.”

Professor Brendan Wintle says private sector help is needed to save Australia's threatened species. .
Professor Brendan Wintle says private sector help is needed to save Australia's threatened species. .
SBS

The eastern barred bandicoot is among more than 1,800 plants and animals on Australia’s threatened species list.

The federal government says more than 18 million hectares of feral cat control has been implemented since the release of its Threatened Species Strategy in June.

The government is also working with private landowners on sustainable land management, focusing on conservation alongside farming, tourism and forestry. 

Professor Wintle says more still needs to be done and points to Australia’s extinction record which he says is one of the world’s worst.

“We have a frightening track record in Australia. We have lost 110 animals and plants since European colonisation, including 34 amazing mammal species like the Tasmanian tiger, that no-one will ever hear from or see again,” he said.  

“We need to increase our funding effort by an order of magnitude if we have any chance of stemming this extinction crisis.” 

“For that to occur, we need private funding and government funding, bringing the private sector and private individuals into the war on extinction."

Ms Rypalski says a population of 3,000 animals is needed.
Ms Rypalski says a population of 3,000 animals is needed.
SBS

Annette Rypalski hopes to grow the eastern barred bandicoot population to 3,000, which is a genetically sustainable population. From there it could be self-sustaining.

Professor Wintle says if feral cats and foxes can be controlled, one day the bandicoots might survive in the wild again.

"That's what these fenced programs are doing, keeping endangered species alive so that when we can reduce pressures in broader landscape. These animals can exist in the country again, and that’s the vision."

“We're not at the end of extinction cycle we’re in the middle of an extinction cycle, and there’s a lot of work we have to do.”  

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