Australia. No other country is home to a giant burrowing bandicoot with a backward pouch, oversized ears, well-developed claws, a long tongue, that lives under the ground and eats insects. And no other country has a giant burrowing bandicoot that delievers eggs at Easter, either.
Regardless of whether you’re interested in the April holiday; its religious content or the decorations, celebrating the Australian native bilby is definitely worth chewing some chocolate over.
The name Bilby is derived from the Ullaroi language name for Bilby – Bilba. Devastatingly, the 1960s was the last recorded sighting of Australia’s lesser bilby, and today, it's relative the greater bilby is near 10 times more rare than Africa’s White Rhinoceros. This very cute, bug-eating, burrowing native animal once occupied two thirds of the country now, only lives in small pockets of Australia’s central and western deserts, with a few recorded in western Queensland. Since European settlement, at least 80 per cent of Australia's bilby population has gone. To ensure that our last remaining species of bilby does not fall extinct, wildlife officials say threatened species awareness could make all the difference.
Threatened Species Commissioner and Dhawaral man, Gregory Andrews is one of the many Australians campaigning for #bilbiesnotbunnies; advocating for the country's most fascinating desert-dwellers, and removing the spotlight from its competitor, the rabbit - who is in fact, largely responsible for the marsupial’s demise.
There are more rabbits in Australia than any other mammal (including people) and the introduced species puts pressure on over 300 endangered animals and plants, including the bilby.
“Rabbits not only compete with bilbies for habitat, but rabbits also fuel up feral cats. When there are plauges of rabbits, cat numbers can explode and then the cats will start devouring bilbies as well,” Andrews told NITV.
“We should focus on the Easter Bilby and not the Easter Bunny because we’ve got to love our native wildlife more than our ferals. We have 76 invasive backbone species in Australia, like rabbits, and foxes, feral cats, goats, donkeys, cane toads etcetera, and often Australians know more about these spieces than the ones that actually belong.
“For example, when I play the ‘threatened species guessing game’ at schools, where I have a big bag full of stuffed animals and I pull them out, I’d be very lucky in a high-awareness classroom if 50 per cent of the class knew what a bilby was. I’ve actually been to primary schools where none of the children knew what a bilby was. However, all of our children recognise rabbits,” Andrews says.
Introducing the Easter Bilby
The first documented Easter Bilby character was a book ‘Billy the Aussie Easter Bilby’ written by a 9-year-old Queenslander, Rose-Marie Dusting in 1968, which later became published 29 years later in 1997. With the concept of an Easter Bilby vaguely commonly known, the Foundation for Rabbit-Free Australia (RFA) developed a campaign in the early 90s which replaced the traditonal Easter bunny with native wildlife to raise awareness of the damage feral rabbits’ cause to the country.
In 1993, pastoralists and scientists of RFA approached Alice Springs-based Children’s author and illustrator Kaye Kessing to create a narrative for their new mascot. With the Easter Bunny “old and tired”, Kessing’s literally skills handed the basket on to the native Australian bilby. The picture book, ‘Easter Bilby’ soon became a staple in family homes and school libraries across the country.
Save Bilbies, invest in Aboriginal Land Management
Controlling foxes, feral cats and fire are crucial in saving the demise of the bilby, which is why Indigenous land management plays such a fundamental role in their survival. Nearly 80 per cent of the small population of bilbies live on Aboriginal owned or managed land, leaving many Indigenous people responsible for protecting its population.
Most Indigenous rangers have superb tracking skills and harness traditional and contemporary knowledge to assist in the bilby's survival. Gregory Andrews says that the best way for the Australian Government to help bilbies is to work with Aboriginal people.
“Indigenous hunting of feral cats is the cheapest and most cost effective way to control cats. So my primary focus with bilbies is to support Indigenous hunting and burning.”
Last year the Ninu (bilby) Festival held in Kiwirrkurra Community brought together Indigenous land management groups, scientists, government agencies and research institutions to share knowledge, stories and discuss the future of the severely threatened marsupial. This year, the very first Bilby Blitz will occur, where Indigenous rangers will work at the same time across all of the known – both, current and former - bilby habitats in Australia, looking for and recording active bilby sites.
Leah Robinson, a Parnngurr Ranger in the Martu community in WA helps protect bilbies by hunting feral cats, looking after country, controlling fire burning and bringing up fresh food. She attended last years’ Ninu festival,
“We listened to a lot of different mobs, talking about how they look after the bilby (Mankarr). We shared ideas and we shown how to trap cats,” She told NITV.
“Everyone should care about the bilby. Because when they are gone, they will be gone forever.”
Gregory Andrews echos this sentiment and says that bilbies provide many eco service benefits, but ultimately their loss will be more detrimental to our Australian identity,
“Animals like the bilby define Australia. 90 per cent of our wildlife is found no where else on Earth, that’s why we end up naming our sporting teams after them, why we put them on our money and our coat of arms – we even have a kangaroo of the tail of QANTAS. But sadly we’ve lost eight wallaby species already, with 16 more at risk of extinction – if we don’t save the bilby, we’ll lose another part of what it means to be Australian.
"Animals like the bilby define Australia. 90 per cent of our wildlife is found no where else on Earth, that’s why we end up naming our sporting teams after them, why we put them on our money and our coat of arms"
“My grandfather used to have a saying, ‘I’ll be back in a bilby’s whisker’, but sadly, we no longer say that. If anything we say things like, ‘breeding like rabbits’ and we’re losing a part of our unique culture and idenity.”
While the Easter Bilby might seem like a commercial push in an already over-materialistic holiday, the critter actually got its gig to ensure that native wildlife remains in homes and hearts of Australia. Hopefully the population of this unique marsupial will be back in a bilby's whisker.
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