Only one native Australian animal has a national day dedicated to it, and last weekend the community of Charleville celebrated that to the fullest.
It began by welcoming a steam train of 150 enthusiastic bilby fans to town, led by Australian legend Dawn Fraser.
After hearing from the legendary Bilby Brothers Peter McRae and Frank Manthey, the Bilby Experience centre was officially opened.
The weekend culminated with almost 300 people dusting off their stoles and minks for the Fur Ball on Saturday night at a 1930s-inspired fancy dress party.
Save the Bilby Fund representative Peggy Mucci said that prior to this year, the group’s interpretation centre had been housed at the Queensland Parks and Wildlife office in Charleville but their move to the centre of town would give them space to expand and host greater numbers of people.
“It’s more of a permanent home for us,” she said.
The centre is housed in the Charleville Railway Station and has been open to visitors since April’s soft opening, and the move has been well-received by the public.
It allowed the fund to create a space that was inviting, educational and created awareness of the plight of bilbies and other threatened arid and semi-arid species that are less charismatic then the bilby and, where the public can come in to experience a live bilby, Peggy added.
They’re only a small creature, a member of the bandicoot family, but they continue to ignite strong passions, and it’s a passion those devoted to saving it want to spread throughout Australia.
Speaking at the opening of the Bilby Experience information centre in Charleville on Friday, Save the Bilby Fund CEO Kevin Bradley said that for people to want to save something, they first had to understand it.
“We’re committed to this,” he said. “Bilbies are an umbrella group for many other endangered species that will benefit from our work.”
He and a number of citizen scientists were planning a week at Currawinya National Park following the centre opening to survey numbers and to continue the work of renovating the fence erected to protect a released population there.
Despite the odds – supporters quote numbers of 23 million feral cats in Australia predating on bilbies and other small mammals – Kevin says their fight is achievable.
“We’re lucky in that we’re working with an animal that is incredibly hardy,” he said.
Lessons are being learnt from the areas in which bilbies remain, on indigenous land or land protected by indigenous rangers, where practices of strategic burning and intensive management of foxes and cats are being undertaken.
Frank Manthey, one of the so-called Bilby Brothers – the two men who through their work with QPWS first brought national attention to the plight of the creatures – said word of mouth was also an important factor.
As well as working intensely at the beginning of the new millenium to have a day set aside in recognition of the animal, Frank said weekends like the one just passed in Charleville, where three days of events were devoted to raising awareness and money, were essential.
“Go home from the Fur Ball and tell everyone about this,” he said. “We can set a benchmark. With people power we will be able to say to the federal government, 23 million feral cats is a disgusting number and we need to do something.”
Bilby awareness events have also taken place at Broome, at the Alice Springs EcoFair, at Lithgow in New South Wales, and at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary and Dreamworld in Queensland.