The Greater Bilby is a uniquely Australian Easter icon, but how much do you really know about these gorgeous, shy and elusive marsupials? And should we be ditching chocolate Easter bunnies for good?
The chocolate bilby was first introduced in the 1990s by Rabbit Free Australia. Bilbies have a few things in common with rabbits. They have large bunny-like ears, which they constantly pump blood through to help cool them down in the intense summer heat. They are also a similar size and weight, live in burrows, have a diverse diet, and breed relatively quickly.
Greater Bilby (Qld Dept Environment & Heritage Protection)
However unlike rabbits, which are invasive and feral animals found in plague-like proportions across Australia, the Greater Bilby is a vulnerable species, found in just 20% of their original range. Non-native animals like cats, foxes, rabbits and livestock are key causes of their population decline and range contraction.
Rabbits not only out-compete native Australian animals, but also cause significant damage to native vegetation and primary industries by decimating crops and native plants, reducing livestock grazing resources, and increasing soil erosion.
Feral rabbits (J Shilling)
Bilbies, on the other hand, are major contributors to the health of arid ecosystems like mulga shrublands and spinifex grasslands.
Bilbies use their strong front limbs and claws to create spiral burrows in their home range, where they escape both the heat and predators.
They also create holes and scratchings in the sand looking for food, which their powerful noses can detect up to a meter below the ground’s surface. All this digging greatly contributes to the restoration of poor soils, by increasing carbon and nitrogen. A healthy soil system and regrowth of native vegetation result.
Arid Recovery, a 123km2 property enclosed by a predator-proof fence in the far north of SA, has played a major role in the protection and conservation of bilbies.
Nathan Beerkens, field ecologist and community coordinator at Arid Recovery, explains that the fence ‘allowed us to reintroduce animals that were completely wiped off the Australian continent.'
Commencing with the release of 20 bilbies about 21 years ago, there are now over 1,000 thriving in Arid Recovery.
‘Our fence keeps them safe and gives us time to learn about them and try to figure out ways of getting them to survive outside fences again,’ explained Mr Beerkens.
L-R: Ecologist Nathan Beerkens holding a captured bilby (Samantha Kirby); a volunteer releasing a bilby into Arid Recovery (Nathan Beerkens).
An easy way to help is to buy chocolate bilbies rather than bunnies this Easter. Haigh’s, who are celebrating 25 years of the chocolate bilby this year, donate part of their proceeds to Rabbit Free Australia (and also sponsor Conservation SA member group Zoos SA’s bilby program), while Pink Lady’s bilbies and selected Australian Bush Friends chocolates support the Save the Bilby Fund.
Mr Beerkens says that buying chocolate bilbies is the perfect opportunity to ‘raise awareness for these wonderful animals, support a good cause and eat some yummy chocolate!’
Buying for someone who doesn’t like chocolate? Why not go a step further and adopt a bilby through Arid Recovery?
Story by Emma Matthews
Rabbit Free Australia
Save the Bilby Fund
ABC news story - Arid Recovery and bilbies
Bilby (Macrotis lagotis)
IUCN red list