BANDICOOTS are bouncing back in Corner Country in a collaboration to rewild Sturt National Park.
Thirteen bandicoots from the South Australian ‘Arid Recovery’ project were released into a native animal sanctuary near Tibooburra in August and motion-activated cameras have already detected two small sets of bandicoot tracks on the red sand, alongside the adult ones.
“We will know soon but I am guessing there are now 20 bandicoots from the original 13 and 20 to 60 bilbies from the original 10,” said Rebecca West, an ecologist for the Wild Deserts project
Ten bilbies were released into the 2,000 hectare sanctuary in September, 2020, and both of the released marsupial species have been renovating the arid ecosystem.
“Bandicoots and bilbies are called ‘ecosystem engineers,’” said Ms West.
“They dig for tubers or when they hear a little reptile rummaging.
“This digging creates foraging pits and seeds get blown in and the pits trap water.”
These foraging pits then become nutrient-rich, enabling more plants to grow.
Bandicoots and bilbies also aid plant growth by distributing carbon and nitrogen. Animals excrete in one place but digging spreads it around, making these digging marsupials vital for the ecosystem.
“Once they’re gone, there’s nothing,” said Ms West.
The Wild Deserts project is a collaboration between the University of NSW, Ecological Horizons and the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage to reintroduce locally extinct mammals to Sturt National Park.
The delicate balance of the arid ecosystem is preserved, including bandicoots moving into bilby burrows when it’s hot.
“Bilbies dig burrows to shelter from the heat and they can be a couple of metres deep, where the earth is much cooler,” said Ms West.
“They’ll come out a bit later on warm nights.
“Bilbies have a few burrows so bandicoots are not likely to get kicked out of the burrows.”
Recent rainfall has made feeding conditions optimal for these onmivorous marsupials.
“Last year, Dubbo Zoo bilbies have come as immature males and gained 400 per cent of their body weight since they were first released,” said Ms West.
“They are the biggest bilbies we have ever seen so they are having no problem with food.”
They are finding plenty of seeds and tubers, as well as insects and small lizards.
“Bilbies do well if there are alot of grasses and high ground cover,” said Ms West.
“That way they can avoid being eaten by owls at night.”
Rabbits cause problems for bilbies because they eat the protective ground cover and compete for food.
However, more and more of Sturt National Park is being fenced to exclude introduced species and the native animal sanctuary now spans 4,000 hectares over two paddocks.
Once the bilby, mulgara and bandicoot populations are established, quolls will be introduced and then a ‘Wild Training Zone’ will be operational in 2023.
Released native animals are predator-naïve so the 100 square kilometre training ground will allow them to learn skills to co-exist with feral predators beyond the fences.
“It’s the halfway house, with controlled cat numbers, so the native animals learn how to avoid them,” said Ms West.
“We’ve got collars on the cats to learn their movements.”
Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate in the world and feral cats kill 1.4 billion native animals every year. They are the main reason bilbies were declared extinct in NSW over 100 years ago, after bilbies had inhabited 70 per cent of the Australian continent for up to 15 million years.
Cats, foxes and rabbits are excluded from the native animal sanctuary by a wire fence and leftover wire has been shaped into giant sculptures of the native animals it protects.
West Darling Arts is a key partner of the Wild Deserts project, which created the Giant Bilby at Cameron’s Corner, the Giant Quoll at Fort Grey Campground and, halfway between them, the biggest sculpture, which is the Giant Bandicoot.
These installations dot Corner Country on Sturt’s Steps, a trademarked 1,100 kilometre driving trail in development which loops from Broken Hill to Cameron’s Corner and back. It approximates as closely as physically possible Charles Sturt’s 1845 Inland Expedition in search of a mythical inland sea.
The Wild Desert Project aims to restore all of the native animal species which were there when Sturt travelled through.
“We know the bandicoots were here because Sturt wrote about them in his diary,” said Ms West.
“We hope people visiting will be able to see them when they’re driving around.
“It’s a bilby and bandicoot paradise out there.”