Giant dogs to protect vulnerable bandicoot population in Victoria

By AAP 16 December 2020
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A team of researchers has found a novel way to keep foxes away from 20 precious bandicoots introduced into a Victorian conservation reserve last month.

Two giant, territorial dogs are protecting a recently released population of endangered marsupials in Victoria’s southwest, by ignoring them.

A team of researchers from Zoos Victoria and the University of Tasmania has found a novel approach to keep foxes away from 20 precious bandicoots introduced into a national conservation reserve near Skipton on November 25 and 27.

After four years of training, Maremma guardian dogs have been placed nearby along with a flock of sheep with the duo’s mission to help bring the critically endangered eastern barred bandicoot back from extinction in the wild.

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The recently released bandicoots. (Image credit: Zoos Victoria)

“We’ve trained the dogs to leave the bandicoots alone, and instead bonded the dogs to protect a flock of sheep,” Zoos Victoria’s guardian dog coordinator David 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 initiative is modelled on Victoria’s movie-inspiring Middle Island Maremma project, kickstarted in 2006 when there was a sharp drop in the area’s little penguin colony due to fox predation.

Maremma guardian dogs were trained and placed on the island just off the coast of Warrnambool to protect the penguins during the breeding season, with the population slowly recovering back above 200.

It is the first time the method has been applied to an endangered marsupial and in an open landscape.

The bandicoots and dogs’ movements will be tracked and monitored with radio transmitters, GPS trackers and 35 remote cameras across the conservation reserve.

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The researchers plan to establish more self-sustaining bandicoot populations at several other sites in western Victoria, where they once thrived in the grassy woodlands before extensive habitat degradation and the spread of introduced predators.

“As the bandicoots are going back into natural habitat on the mainland, some may not make it through the journey,” Mr Williams said.

“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.”