Australia’s biodiversity is declining. Around 100 endemic Australian species have been listed extinct – not even counting invertebrates, which would increase the number 10-fold. A further 1,700 plant and animal species are currently threatened. Because no species works in isolation, entire ecosystems are at risk. We have much
work to do to save our species.
Threatened Species Biologist, Dr Amy Coetsee (left), works tirelessly to save one species in particular: the Eastern Barred Bandicoot (EBB). As a child in the UK, she dreamed of a career in conservation and enrolled at the University of Aberdeen to study octopus behaviour. Unfortunately, the octopuses she was working with died. Since then, she has fought to keep animals alive – she came to Australia to study EBB reintroduction biology for her PhD. Now she fights the extinction of some of Victoria’s most endangered species at Zoos Victoria.
The home of the EBB once stretched from Melbourne to the South Australian border. In the 1970’s, the population dropped to around 1000, then within a decade, there were only 150 left. The last refuge of the EBBs was in Hamilton – one of the last places they could be found in the wild. In 1988, the EBB Recovery Team was formed to respond to the continued population decline, and they had to act quickly.
Bandicoots were collected for a captive breeding program. Despite the team’s efforts, the species was declared Extinct in the Wild on the mainland in 2013. But in a story of hope, they have since been reclassified from Extinct in the Wild to Endangered thanks to the efforts of Amy and others.
In 1991, the Bandicoots were moved to Zoos Victoria to breed enough for release back into the wild. But as populations were released, they relied heavily on fox control for continued survival. ‘We can’t maintain a population where foxes are,’ says Amy.
Originally, three release sites spanning 740 hectares were fenced off to protect from foxes. But fences are costly. To build, maintain, and constantly monitor as they require daily checks for any weak points. The team therefore turned to fox-free islands instead.
Amy proposed a release of EBBs on French Island, Victoria’s largest coastal island, to the locals. She initially faced some resistance as there were concerns that it might change the way they have to manage the land or that bandicoots might become overabundant and cause ecological damage (especially given that koalas had previously caused damage in the area by overgrazing trees).
The EBB Recovery Team first did a trial release of 20 bandicoots on Churchill Island. Its small size meant that the bandicoot population quickly filled the space and there are now 110-120 at any one time. With the island being an even split of farm and bush land, like French Island, it was the perfect model for people to see the impacts of bandicoots on the land.
Bandicoots adopted the role of ‘ecosystem engineers’ on the island, digging approximately 13 kg of soil per night to help with turnover. Loosening the soil increases water filtration, nutrient access and promotes seedling growth. The community was starting to see the benefits, and school children even started to make casts of the bandicoot digs.
Pleased with the success on Churchill Island, Amy invited the French Island residents to watch the bandicoots in action. She took around 100 residents across on a boat and shone spotlights on the bandicoots at night. This demonstrated to the community what they might expect from an EBB release and helped win them over.
In 2017, the EBB Recovery team also established a population on Phillip Island. The island provided a large fox-free habitat for the 67 EBBs released – that in the following years, grew to over 300. This gave Amy confidence that a release on French Island would also be successful.
Two years ago, with the help of peanut-butter-and-oat traps, her team collected bandicoots from Phillip Island and Churchill Island and released them the following night along with a handful of captive-bred bandicoots. Side-by-side with local volunteers, they released about 50 bandicoots to start a new population.
This year, the EBB Recovery Team returned their focus to mainland. In Dunkeld and Skipton, bandicoots are now roaming free on private reserves under the watch of guardian dogs. Harnessing the power of guardian dogs to protect sheep from predation, by simply training dogs to not approach bandicoots, they can all live together.
‘The dogs create a landscape of fear,’ says Amy. Foxes do not hunt on lands protected by dogs and instead move quickly through the area. This negates the need for fences; although, some private companies with predator-proof fences are happy to provide land for conservation. Last November some bandicoots were released at Tiverton, a 1000-hectare working sheep farm and the biggest fenced reserve in the state. The future of agriculture and conservation working together hence opens the possibility of farming lands across the state being used to protect endangered species.
The EBB is well on the way to recovery. Populations now persist in several safe havens scattered across the state, 33 years on from inception of the EBB Recovery Team. This provides hope that with persistence and dedication, collaboration between organisations, remarkable leaders (like Amy) and community engagement, we can save them and other threatened species from extinction. Amy hopes that one day she will be out of a job once EBBs are no longer considered endangered (at which point she will move on to save another species!).