Endangered bandicoots released to new island home in bid to hold off extinction | Environment

A decades-long fight to save a tiny endangered Australian marsupial – the eastern barred bandicoot – hit a major milestone last night as conservationists released 55 into the dusk of a new island home in Victoria.

Conservationists hope French Island, which is free of the invasive European red fox, will be a perfect spot for the bandicoots, which have never lived on the island before.

Recovery plans for the bandicoot started in 1988 after numbers on Australia’s mainland sunk as low as 100, with a captive breeding program starting in 1991.

Invasive foxes and feral cats are the two major killers of Australian mammals and, for the bandicoot, it is foxes, together with destruction of habitat for grazing, that pushed the animal to the brink on the mainland. The species exist in healthier numbers in Tasmania.

A small number of fenced areas on Australia’s mainland were created but in 2015 conservationists released 20 in a trial on the 57-hectare Churchill Island in Western Port Bay, Victoria.

“They have established themselves with about 130 there now. That became our demonstration site,” said Zoos Victoria threatened species biologist Dr Amy Coetsee.

In 2017, 67 bandicoots were released on to the larger Phillip Island and, while survival numbers are not yet known, Coetsee said they had spread at least two kilometres from the release site.

On Thursday night, Coetsee joined other conservationists and locals from French Island in capturing 40 of the rabbit-sized bandicoots from Churchill Island to then transport them by boat to an area known as Blue Gums in the French Island national park.

There they joined 15 other bandicoots taken from the captive breeding program for the evening release, from 10 different sites, watched by scores of supportive locals.

Radio monitors on the tails of about 30 of the bandicoots, which like to forage for grubs and worms in grasslands, will help conservationists track the bandicoots for the first two weeks.

Coetsee said the existence of suitable habitat, the lack of foxes and also a plan to reduce the numbers of feral cats, together with a supportive local community, gave her hope the bandicoots would make a success of French Island.

Phillip Island Nature Parks deputy director of research Dr Duncan Sutherland said: “The captive breeding program, the previous releases on to Churchill Island and Phillip Island, and now this latest release on to French Island, have provided a form of insurance for the survival of this critically endangered native animal.”

The French Island release makes the third Western Port Bay Island to be used as a haven for the bandicoots.

Prof Sarah Legge of the Australian National University, and deputy director of the Threatened Species Recovery Hub at the National Environmental Science Program, said the bandicoot would be extinct were it not for “some pretty extraordinary conservation efforts”.

She said island “havens” that were free from foxes and cats were an essential tool for conservationists trying to save Australia’s native mammals. Island havens were being used to protect 13 Australian mammals.

She said: “Australia has the worst mammal extinction record in the world, and it would be much worse had it not been for these island havens.

“It is essential to find fox-free areas for bandicoots – it seems they are more sensitive to foxes than cats. This translocation to French Island is a really positive step.

“We do need to find a more effective and enduring solution to managing foxes and cats, but in the meantime we have to get species onto islands and fenced areas to prevent more extinctions.”

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