Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: June 22, 2021

Bold, fluffy and ready for action, Wednesday and Terzo are on a mission — to protect endangered bandicoots.

The unlikely union between the Italian sheep dog and the tiny marsupial is at the centre of a research trial by Zoos Victoria to see if maremmas can be successfully used to re-establish bandicoot populations on mainland Australia.

Last week, 20 eastern barred bandicoots were released at Zoos Victoria’s second research trial site several hours drive west of Melbourne. 

Returned to land their ancestors roamed before foxes wiped them out, the bandicoots scurried out of wooden boxes and into the grassland without looking back.

The release was over in minutes but the journey to get there was decades in the making.

30 years ago, Zoos Victoria began breeding the eastern barred bandicoot in captivity in a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction.

Now this plan to reintroduce them to a land still infested with predators has shown promising signs. 

Inspired by the Middle Island penguin project – lovingly captured in the film Oddball where maremmas were introduced to protect penguins from foxes – planning for the bandicoot trials began in 2015.

But it has taken years to train the dogs to live alongside bandicoots before they could be released.

“We very, very slowly and carefully introduced the dogs to bandicoots, and vice versa,” Mr Williams said.

Turns out the bandicoots were not too bothered by the dogs, however their solitary nature was a challenge for the dogs.

Bandicoots are territorial and live alone, spreading out through grassland rather than banding together, and this posed a problem for the maremmas which are flock guardians, Mr Williams said.

So, another fluffy animal was introduced to solve this problem – sheep.

In late 2020, eastern barred bandicoots were released at another trial site at Skipton near Ballarat with two other maremmas.

Zoos Victoria endangered species biologist Amy Coetsee said the results so far were promising.

Previously unremarkable paddocks, these two trial sites were now the only places in mainland Australia where bandicoots were living outside specially designed predator-proof fences.

The only place eastern barred bandicoots existed in the wild was on several islands including Churchill and Phillip, where they have been introduced as insurance policies against extinction.

While the trial sites were fenced, it was to keep the sheep and bandicoots from escaping, not to keep foxes out.

Foxes and other predators like feral cats can pass through the site so the ability of the guardian dogs to protect their tiny friends can be tested.

“This project is very much a trial, no one has ever done this before, so we don’t know if it’s going to work,” Dr Coetsee said.

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