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Bilby Back in Australian Wild for the First Time in a Century

Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, and her husband, Britain's Prince William, watch as their son Prince George looks at an Australian animal called a bilby during a visit to Sydney's Taronga Zoo, April 20, 2014.

For the first time in more than a century, bilbies are running wild in Australia’s most populous state.

Bilbies were once widespread across much of Australia, but were last recorded in the wild in New South Wales state in 1912. Every year bilby populations continue to fall, and conservationists fear the small marsupial could become extinct because of predators, fires and land clearing. Experts say the bilbies are “barely hanging on” in small, isolated pockets.

In northern New South Wales state, environmentalists are celebrating what they are calling a historic moment. Thirty bilbies from a captive breeding program have been released into a large predator-free enclosure near the town of Narrabri, 500 kilometers north of Sydney.

Without the protection of a 32-kilometer fence, experts say, they probably would not survive.

Historic moment

Tim Allard is the chief executive of the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which is involved in the project.

He says the release of these iconic animals is a historic moment.

“Bilbies only really survive behind fenced areas,” he said. “There are some remaining wild bilby populations, but they get predated upon heavily by feral cats and foxes. Behind a large-scale fenced area is really the only way of ensuring their survival.

“Well, the point of doing these projects is to return the bush to what it used to be before Europeans turned up, before feral predators such as cats and foxes were introduced,” Allard continued. “So in the not-too-distant future, you will be able to go inside the fenced area and it will be like stepping back in time before Europeans turned up. You will have populations of bilbies, bandicoots, bridled nail-tail wallabies. It will really be a very special experience.”

Protecting biodiversity

Bilbies are known for their long rabbitlike ears and large hind legs. They are small nocturnal, burrowing animals that grow to about 2.5 kilograms. They eat plant roots, ants, beetles and spiders.

Australia has one of the world’s worst rates of mammal extinctions, and the bilby project is seen as a vital part in protecting the nation’s fragile biodiversity.

It is estimated that 1 million birds in Australia are killed each day by predators, including feral cats, wild dogs and foxes.