Guardian dogs provide safe haven for endangered bandicoots

16 December 2020

After years of training, two very special Guardian dogs are ready to fulfil their mission to help bring the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot back from extinction in the wild.

In a collaborative research trial between Zoos Victoria and the University of Tasmania, 20 precious bandicoots have been released into a National Trust of Australia (Victoria) conservation reserve and are now under the protection of two of Zoos Victoria’s trained
Guardian dogs.

A team of scientists and conservationists are tracking and monitoring the movements of both the bandicoots and the dogs as the canines actively seek to deter predatory foxes away from the site - a reserve near Skipton in Victoria’s western district.

Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Coordinator David Williams said the research trial was the culmination of four years of training Maremma dogs – a large, territorial breed – to ignore the Eastern Barred Bandicoots at Werribee Open Range Zoo.

“We’ve trained the dogs to leave the bandicoots alone, and instead bonded the dogs to protect a flock of sheep,” Mr Williams said. “The dogs are not bonded directly to the bandicoots as they are solitary and nocturnal – so they do not flock. However, sheep do flock, and in the Skipton reserve the sheep can eat grass, bandicoots can live in the grassland, and all three species can share the same habitat.”

"The aim is that the presence of the dogs will alter the behaviour of the foxes, which will allow the Eastern Barred Bandicoots to thrive once again.” - Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Coordinator, David Williams.

Eastern Barred Bandicoots were once widespread across the grassy woodlands of southwest Victoria, however extensive habitat degradation and the spread of introduced predators following European settlement saw the bandicoot population plummet. Today, Eastern Barred Bandicoots are extinct in the wild on mainland Australia.

The Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team was formed in the late 1980s. A captive breeding and insurance program managed by Zoos Victoria, combined with releases into fenced and island safe havens, has prevented the extinction of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot. However, further efforts are required to support the species’ long-term future. The Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Project aims to reintroduce populations of the notoriously gentle and shy native marsupials back into the wild on mainland Victoria.

Mr Williams said the research trial’s key measure of success will be the establishment of self-sustaining populations of bandicoots, first at Skipton and then at several other sites in western Victoria – including Dunkeld in 2021.

“As the bandicoots are going back into natural habitat on the mainland, some may not make it through the journey. However, the aim is that the presence of the dogs will alter the behaviour of the foxes, which will allow the Eastern Barred Bandicoots to thrive
in that environment once again.”

National Trust of Australia (Victoria) CEO Simon Ambrose said The National Trust were thrilled to be part of the extraordinary conservation project alongside Zoos Victoria and the University of Tasmania.

“We welcome the endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot back home to the western districts of Victoria. The National Trust works in partnership with organisations like Zoos Victoria to ensure the custodianship and celebration of our natural, cultural, social and Indigenous heritage for future generations of Victorians. This project demonstrates that commitment from all of us involved in protecting the Eastern Barred Bandicoot.”

The conservation reserve at Skipton is equipped with 35 remote wildlife cameras and both Guardian dogs are fitted with GPS trackers. Additionally, all bandicoots are fitted with radio transmitters, weighing just 1.32 grams, that allow researchers to closely track their activity throughout the 50-hectare space.

The 20 Eastern Barred Bandicoots that were released for the research trial came from Churchill Island (Phillip Island Nature Parks), Hamilton Community Parklands (Department of Environment, Land, Water & Planning), and from captive breeding programs at Werribee Open Range Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Serendip Sanctuary (Parks Victoria).

The Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Project is modelled on the successful Middle Island Maremma Project, where Maremma dogs are trained to protect penguins from foxes during breeding season. This is the first time that the method is being applied to an endangered marsupial and in an open landscape.

The Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team has members from Conservation Volunteers Australia, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), Mt Rothwell Biodiversity Interpretation Centre, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Parks Victoria, Phillip Island Nature Parks, the University of Melbourne, Tiverton Property Partnering and Zoos Victoria.

The Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Project has members from Dunkeld Pastoral Company, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Tiverton Property Partnering, the University of Melbourne, the University of Tasmania and Zoos Victoria.

Zoos Victoria would like to thank and acknowledge our funding partners the Australian Research Council's Linkage grants scheme, the Australian Government National Landcare Program, the Victorian Government, The Dyson Bequest, John Cochrane, The Standish Family Fund, part of the Australian Communities Foundation and The Scobie & Claire Mackinnon Trust for their support of the Zoos Victoria Guardian Dog Program.