The Easter Bilby is a relatively recent Australian phenomenon, but in a land where rabbits have been viewed as the Enemy, Easter Bunnies never made a lot of sense. So it was a great marketing strategy to reshape the bunny into a bilby: lengthen his nose and tail, give him claws and a squat stance and – hey presto – a politically correct, environmentally friendly chocolate marsupial. Since most of us city dwellers have never seen a bilby anyway, anatomical accuracy isn’t essential.
Bilbies are small, grey, inoffensive little animals that live in dry spinifex country, and like many small, grey, inoffensive things, they are in trouble. One species has been extinct since the 1950s, and the common bilby, Macrotis lagotis, is listed as a threatened species. They are predated by feral cats and other exotic imports, such as foxes, and threatened by loss of habitat.
So it was a great gesture when Darrell Lea, the chocolate makers, first introduced the Easter Bilby in 1991, and donated a share of their profits to the Save the Bilby Fund. The second Sunday in September is National Bilby Day; this year it’s 9 September.
But it seems that the bilby may find itself collateral damage as a result of the collapse of Darrell Lea, which has gone into receivership. It seems that other chocolate makers jumped onto the bandwagon to produce chocolate bilbies, but only Darrell Lea supported the cause with hard cash – cash they no longer have.
I had direct experience of the financial impact of the Save the Bilby Fund, some years ago, when a postgraduate student from the Vet Science School came to me asking for help. Toby had a PhD scholarship funded by the group, and was researching bilby numbers and distribution in western Queensland.
He wanted to find out what bilby numbers had been in the past, before Europeans – and their cats – changed the habitat. He came to me for advice on looking at explorers’ accounts of the area. Bilbies are omnivorous, and in their foraging, they are an important distributor of grass seeds, which they take back to their burrows. Explorers were interested in finding good pasture, so perhaps they had paid attention to grass distribution in the lands they passed through?
It was such a great idea, I wish it had yielded more results. But his supervisor thought the investigation was too tangential, and in those pre-digitised days, it would have been a very time-consuming job to go through manuscript accounts – too time-consuming for a postgraduate with other research to do.
The main problem though was evidentiary. Explorers and pioneers weren’t reliably observant. If they reported on grass, it might be evidence for the presence of bilbies – but it they didn’t report on grass, then what? Did that mean there was no grass there, or just that they didn’t think it was worth mentioning? Sometimes there are silences that just can’t be read, or not to any degree of scientific accuracy.
Despite the support of Australian chocoholics, the bilby is still in trouble. Ironically, one reason now is a recent breakthrough in Australia’s running battle with rabbits. When the rabbit cilicivirus was released into the Australian wild rabbit population in 1995, farmers embraced it enthusiastically, and it spread rapidly. Rabbit numbers plummeted as farmers collected sick rabbits and passed them on to their friends across the country. According to the jokes of the time, the disease spread at 100kph in rural areas, and 60kph through urban areas.
As the rabbit population crashed, carnivorous animals were forced to turn to other food sources, including bilbies. It might have been a good thing when Australians replaced bunnies with bilbies in their diet, but when dingoes and feral cats do the same, it’s not such a good idea.
This time last year:
In Flanders’ Fields, 5 September 2011