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Wednesday, 31 March 1999
Page: 3602

Senator BOSWELL (1:54 PM) —Today I want to bring to the attention of the Senate a project that is trying to boost the bilby population in Queensland. It is a chance for all of those who claim to be friends of the bush, wildlife and conservation to do something positive.

The bilby is a small marsupial with grey and tan hair, and a distinctive black and white tail. It produces only one or two young at a time. Bilby populations are currently under threat. Their low birth rate is not the only factor that has contributed to the decline in bilby numbers. Over time, predators such as the red fox, feral cats and the dingo have threatened bilby populations. Competition for food between introduced and native species has led to a decrease in bilby numbers.

Four-fifths of the area previously inhabited by the bilby in Queensland no longer hosts the species. Across Australia, sparse populations are found only in isolated desert areas in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland. In Queensland, only 600 to 700 bilbies can be found in a 100,000 kilometre radius stretching from Birdsville to Boulia. Previously, this large expanse of Queensland was host to a healthy bilby population.

In response to the declining population, a Queensland group, including Frank Manthey and others, has proposed establishing a bilby breeding program from a colony of 30 bilbies currently in Charleville. The proposal is to increase numbers by housing bilbies in an enclosure designed to keep out predators and to reduce competition from other species. By protecting the small bilby from large, more rapacious animals and ensuring it has adequate food, the proposed project would give a jump-start to the bilby population. Enclosures five kilometres by five kilometres with two-metre high fences and electric wires would provide a formidable deterrent to hungry predators.

Once a healthy population of several hundred bilbies was reached, the animals would be gradually released through small openings in the fence into the immediate area. Hopefully they would then spread through their natural geographical habitat across Currawinya Park, near Hungerford, and even go further. The introduced predators would be subject to a control program before the bilbies were released. It is hoped that these larger populations would be able to fend off competitor species and would actively breed in their natural environment.

The project is in need of financial assistance. Individuals who contribute $20 to the project will be recognised on a plaque on the bilby fence. This is a chance for all of the people with the green credentials to put their money where their mouth is. I will be inviting all senators, particularly the Democrats, to do something positive for the bilby population. I will look forward to seeing whether Senator Woodley has his cheque in the mail. I will certainly be sending mine. The appeal for funds, which was launched this week, will run until the end of the year or until enough donations are received. Larger donations from corporate organisations are graciously welcomed. The entire project is estimated to cost $250,000.

While this project would be practically solving the decline in bilby numbers, it would also have a research component. Under a national recovery plan and a state rescue plan, coordinated research would be conducted into the biology and ecology of the species. Armed with scientific knowledge about the decrease in bilby populations, participants would be able to identify threats to the bilby population and devise new plans to stabilise the species. Stabilisation is vital.

Currently the bilby is listed as vulnerable nationally and endangered in Queensland. With further losses, it is possible that the national listing will also be upgraded to endangered. This is a worthy project but public assistance is needed if Australia is to have a healthy bilby population despite what happens in the wild.

While the Astrebla Downs National Park in the Channel Country has the most significant remaining population, previous unreliable rainfall has made the area unsuitable for the bilby project. Currawinya National Park has been chosen because it was formerly the heart of the Queensland bilby population. It is a large national park with permanent staff who can be dedicated to the task of saving this important marsupial. It is also an area with a diverse and reliable bilby food supply. Let us hope the park can once again play host to a robust bilby population.

Donations of nearly $14,000 have already been received from ordinary Australians and some from larger corporations. As I said, I will be donating to the project myself. This is a chance to do something very positive for wildlife conservation. I will be looking to see how Senator Woodley responds to this, and Senator Brown too.