By Claire Underwood (Boj creator/director)
In early 2015 I went on an amazing world tour with my Pesky partner David Hodgson (Boj co-creator/producer) and our daughter Poppy (who voices Rupa). We spent several weeks in Australia on a mission to find out more about bilbies.
During production we’d had some Skype chats with Frank Manthey and Kevin Bradley from Save the Bilby Fund – trying to find ways we could raise awareness of the bilby through Boj. So it was fantastic to finally meet up with them in Brisbane.
Frank has dedicated much of his life to fundraising to help save an animal that was once presumed extinct. By introducing the chocolate bilby for Easter in 2002 (as an alternative to the destructive, non-native rabbit) Frank finally put bilbies on the map. And most importantly raised significant funds to build a predator proof fenced bilby enclosure at the Currawinya National Park in Queensland.
Whilst we were in Brisbane we went to Dreamworld (zoo and theme park attraction) and trialed ‘Boj’s Aussie Safari’. This is one of our outreach initiatives, where UK school children are taken on a ‘virtual school trip’ with Boj to meet Australian wildlife via a live interactive web show.
Kevin from Save the Bilby Fund handled rare animals including a bilby, koala and a Tasmanian devil as he fielded questions from the children on the other side of the world. Read all about it here!
This was the first time I had ever seen a real life bilby. There are no bilbies in zoos outside of Australia. All my inspiration for Boj had come from research on the internet, so it was a big moment to finally meet one.
After a few days in Brisbane we ventured to the Outback, to Charleville, Queensland – home of the Save the Bilby Fund breeding program.
We were greeted with a warm Outback welcome at the airport by Frank Manthey’s daughter, Karen Russell of 4RR (Charleville’s local radio station) and whisked straight off to be interviewed about Boj and our bilby connection for her breakfast show!
Then next stop was to meet Peter McRae – the zoologist who knows more about bilbies than anyone else in the world! Since 1988 Peter has been studying bilbies and working tirelessly to protect them. Often spending long stretches alone in the harsh, arid conditions of the Simpson desert in a small (sometimes rat infested) cabin.
Peter explained how the biggest threat to the bilby and much of Australia’s native wildlife are feral cats and foxes. Both animals were introduced, as pets and for sports, when early settlers came to Australia. The cats and foxes had a ready supply of food in the form of another introduced animal – the rabbit. A fox or cat doesn’t differentiate between a rabbit or a rare bilby when hunting – and as the foxes and cats have thrived, the bilby numbers have drastically decreased.
Bilbies were once widespread across Australia – but they have been forced into extreme and inhospitable habitats where many other animals cannot survive. The smaller lesser bilby is now extinct – and the greater bilby is now only found in two areas of the Australian Outback.
For a decade, Save the Bilby Fund’s predator fence at the Currawinya National Park provided a safe enclosure for the bilbies bred in Peter’s captive breeding program. But in 2012 there were devastating floods which created holes under the fence. The cats got in and the bilbies were almost all wiped out. The breeding program had to be put on hold until the cats were culled and the fence made secure.
A moment I will cherish forever was when I was lucky enough to be able to hold a bilby at the breeding centre. It’s fur was incredibly soft and she seemed calm and relaxed. They are however only docile in the daytime. Handling them at night when they are active is almost impossible – as they are very quick and do have sharp teeth which they can latch on with!
We finished our Charleville trip with a visit to the School of Distance Education, where we were able to sit in on a lesson being conducted over the internet to primary school children in remote locations. Poppy was amazed to see how different it was to her school – and after flying over the region she got a real sense of the vastness of Australia and the necessity for remote schooling.
Our experience in Charleville was a major highlight of the world tour. To experience Boj’s Outback roots was a great way to round off the production! There was a wonderful sense of community and the warmest of Aussie hospitality in an awe inspiring setting.