While the Easter Bunny has long been a part of our Easter tradition, its suitability to Australians is questionable and perhaps dedicating Easter to the bilby could help the threatened species make a comeback.
Australia has a sad history of importing European animals – rabbits, foxes and cats, for example – that now pose a great threat to the survival of our native species. Feral rabbits are Australia's greatest pests, currently costing agriculture, and hence the community, about $200 million annually, in addition to untold costs to the environment.
In contrast, the native Australian bilby is seriously endangered and facing extinction. Fewer than 1000 bilbies are thought to be living in the wild. They are now mostly restricted to the driest and least fertile parts of their former habitats, with the exception of populations in areas of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland. Rabbits compete with bilbies for their food and burrows while foxes and feral cats prey on them. The only member of the bandicoot family to make a living in the outback needs our help to survive.
The rabbit was introduced into the country some 200 years ago by early settlers and later released into the wild so they would breed and provide food. Unfortunately no one realised just how well the species would adapt to the harsh climate and how rapidly it would multiply. Today the rabbit, along with foxes and feral cats, still has devastating effect, destroying habitat and running the bilbies out of their burrows and food.
Why then do we still adopt the bunny as our Easter emblem instead of the native bilby? Walk in to our nation's supermarkets around Easter and you're confronted with display walls of stylishly presented chocolate bunnies! Is this a problem of tradition or of fancy marketing?
The bilby was put forward by environmentalists in the mid-1990sas an alternative Easter symbol to represent the ever-increasing list of Australia's endangered or extinct native animals. Initially the Easter Bilby was promoted on supermarket shelves as a rival to the traditional bunny, and retailers donated some of their chocolate bilby-derived profits to wildlife conservation projects. Sadly the support for this program has waned.
The Save the Bilby Fundwas set up to halt the decline of the marsupial with the establishment of a protected reserve in western Queensland. that fences thousands of acres of land to keep the bilby free of cats and foxes, so that they can be re-introduced. The fund has also raised more than $1 million for conservation research, captive breeding and management of the bilby.
The Australian government has also gone to major lengths to help protect the species by introducing the National Recovery Plan for the Greater Bilby in 2006. The recovery was directed to conservation actions which included the protection and management of bilby habitat, research on wild populations and their predators, reintroduction into the wild, and coordinated management of captive bilbies.
Some schools have even caught on, replacing their Easter bunnies with bilbies for annual egg hunts. Sadly, though, these initiatives have failed to generate wide industry and community support for the bilby and similar native species and the important conservation message is not getting across.
In recent years, the effort to save the creature from extinction has extended to Australia's 'Frozen Zoo'. When it was established in 1995, the zoo – or Animal Gene Storage and Resource Centre of Australia (AGSRCA) to give it its full name – was the world's first national wildlife gene bank and remains the only facility of its kind in the country.
The AGSRCA, a joint venture between Monash University and the Zoological Parks Board of New South Wales, has been contributing to the conservation and breeding of the bilby as part of a broader national plan to protect the species.
The Centre preserves the reproductive cells of animals in liquid nitrogen and can store them for many years before they are used for breeding, research and disease investigation. The centre has worked with the Western Plains Zoo at Dubbo to define the characteristics of the female breeding cycle, and to isolate and retain samples of the bilbies genetic material to create a stable and genetically diverse breeding population.
The world's animal resources are rapidly declining. Globally, more than 5000 wildlife species are threatened with extinction. An animal gene bank is a guarantee that, in the face of a possible catastrophe – exotic disease outbreaks, fires, floods or wars, – it will be possible to save our animal resources. We also hope that these techniques will succeed in building the bilbies population and in maintaining its genetic viability to the point that some animals can be released back into a safe natural habitat free of rabbits, feral cats and foxes.
So with this technology and these resources, we know have the ability to restore the bilby if it vanishes from the face of the earth, but do we really need to wait until this occurs before we respond to the threat of extinction? What we need is the will and dedication to do so and there's never been a more urgent time than now.
Let us dedicate Easter to the bilby and to Australia's native animals and make the Easter Bunny a thing of the past.