New island home for one of Victoria's rarest mammals

12 October 2019

A native Victorian mammal perilously close to extinction now has new safe haven for its growing population. In a multi-agency operation over two days, around 50 Eastern Barred Bandicoots were released to start a new life on French Island, in Western Port Bay, south-east of Melbourne.

The release on Friday night (11 October) was the culmination of decades of work by the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team, and the latest chapter in a truly remarkable conservation story.

Once wide-spread across the grassy woodlands of southwest Victoria, extensive habitat destruction following European settlement saw the Eastern Barred Bandicoot population plummet. Almost all (>99.9%) of their habitat was wiped out and introduced predators hunted them almost to extinction.

The last wild population of bandicoots hung on at Hamilton in south-western Victoria, with some surviving in the most unlikely location – the tip. However, this last remaining population was also declining.

In 1988 the recovery team was formed and over the following decades a major conservation campaign was launched, including a long-term insurance and captive breeding program.

Zoos Victoria has been managing the captive breeding program for Eastern Barred Bandicoots since 1991, with more than 950 bandicoots born at Melbourne Zoo, Werribee Open Range Zoo and partner organisations during that time.

But working out how to breed successfully in captivity has always only been one part of the mission. The goal has always been to return these wonderful marsupials to the wild.

The threat of foxes loomed large over this ambition, so securely fenced sites were created across south-west Victoria, including at Hamilton, Mt Rothwell and Woodlands Historic Park. However, more land was needed to give the bandicoot the best chance of growing its population outside of captivity and fenced reserves.

The species recovery team determined that fox-free islands offered the greatest chance of re-establishing wild populations of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot, but these bandicoot had never been found on any Victorian islands.

In 2015, a trial release managed by Phillip Island Nature Parks occurred on Churchill Island, after sustained efforts had rendered the 57-hectare island free of foxes and feral cats. That release showed that the bandicoots could live and breed well on islands. It also showed the benefits bandicoots bring to the environment, contributing to increased soil turnover and soil health through foraging for worms and beetle grubs with their long snouts.

The success of that project, and the declaration that Phillip Island was also now fox-free, paved the way for a larger release of bandicoots onto the Summerland Peninsula in 2017.

With the success of these projects, and evidence the new wild populations of bandicoots are thriving, the scene was set for a third and final release – this time at fox-free French Island.

This week, decades of conservation work culminated in that release, with around 50 bandicoots from the captive breeding program, Churchill Island and Hamilton leaping into their new life on French Island.

Threatened species biologists and other members of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team have been working with the French Island community for more than a decade in preparation for this moment.

Zoos Victoria Threatened Species Biologist Dr Amy Coetsee said it had been a tumultuous journey to the French Island release.

“It’s been a long road to get to this stage, but to see the bandicoots racing into their new home has been an incredible result for all involved,” Dr Coetsee said.

“This is, by far, the most challenging release we’ve ever done and the most rewarding thanks to the support of French Island residents who care deeply about their island home and have welcomed the Eastern Barred Bandicoots onto this fox-free environment.

“These French Island Eastern Barred Bandicoots, who have travelled by boat from four different locations across the state, now have the space to increase their population size and help save their species from extinction.”

Phillip Island Nature Parks Deputy Director of Research Dr Duncan Sutherland said the French Island release would provide a form of insurance for the survival of the Eastern Barred Bandicoot.

“The captive breeding program, the previous releases onto Churchill Island and Phillip Island, and now this latest release onto French Island have provided a form of insurance for the survival of this critically endangered native animal,” Dr Duncan said.

“The populations on Churchill Island and Phillip Island have demonstrated that Eastern Barred Bandicoots can successfully establish in island environments, whilst also having positive environmental effects including the reduction of soil compaction, and improved nutrient and water infiltration.

“It has been incredibly rewarding to work closely with the French Island community and our partners in the Eastern Barred Bandicoot Recovery Team to coordinate this important release.”