Two specially-trained dogs are keeping the critically-endangered marsupials safe from foxes located at a conservation reserve in Dunkeld, near the Grampians, where the nocturnal animals are free to roam.
The unusual collaboration, modelled on the successful Middle Island Project (keeping penguins safe from foxes) is part of a research trial led by a partnership between Zoos Victoria and the University of Tasmania. The project aims to reintroduce self-sufficient bandicoots to mainland Victoria.
The Maremma guard dogs (territorial canines) are a product of four years of training at Werribee Open Range Zoo where they learned to ignore the bandicoots while seeking out predatory animals.
Zoos Victoria guardian dog coordinator David Williams said trainers indirectly taught the dogs by bonding them with a flock of sheep that also lived at the reserve.
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"The dogs are not bonded directly to the bandicoots as they are solitary and nocturnal - so they do not flock," Mr Williams said.
"However, sheep do flock, and in the Dunkeld reserve the sheep can eat grass, bandicoots can live in the grassland, and all three species can share the same habitat."
A team of conservation scientists will now track the movements of both the bandicoots and the dogs using radio transmitters and more than 60 wildlife cameras.
Drones will also be used to allow scientists to track bandicoot activity across the 50-hectare reserve.
The success of the Dunkeld trial will be measured by the formation of a self-sustaining bandicoot population in wider Victoria.
"The results from these two trials (will also) inform what the future may hold for the Guardian Dog Program," Mr Williams said.
"(It) will run for two years, and if a population of bandicoots has established at that time, the guardian dogs may stay on site indefinitely. Following this, an expansion of the program to additional trial sites will be considered."
Data from the program has already indicated that the dogs have changed the predatory movements and behaviour of foxes in the area.
This month, two baby Eastern Barred Bandicoots were also born from captive breeding programs at Werribee Open Range Zoo, Melbourne Zoo and Serendip Sanctuary. They were released into the reserve under the guard of their furry friends.
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