What's Chocolate, Australian, And Not the Easter Bunny?

Meet the Easter bilby, Australia's answer to the Easter bunny. The bilby is a funny-looking, rarely seen animal that lives in the desert. Bunnies, on the other hand, wore out their welcome in Australia 120 years ago.

An Australian supermarket chain began to make and sell bilby-shaped chocolates four years ago to put an Australian spin on the Easter holiday. The bilby, also known as the rabbit-eared bandicoot, was chosen for its looks. Slightly larger than a rabbit, a bilby has long, pointed ears, a pink nose, silky gray fur, and a black-and-white tail.

The shy, nocturnal bilby was once common throughout Australia. Now it's endangered. Early this century, bilbies were hunted for their fur. The cuddly bunny also shares a lot of the blame for the bilby's decline.

Rabbits are very unpopular here. They are Australia's No. 1 pest.

Thomas Austin started it all when he released 24 wild rabbits on his property in 1859. He'd imported them from England so he could hunt them. Twenty years later, the prolific rabbits were declared a national nuisance.

Rabbits damage grazing land. They don't just eat the tops of plants, they eat them down to below the ground. In Australia's hot, dry climate, it's hard for the plants to grow back. Grass becomes sparse. Deserts grow.

Rabbits still cause an estimated $600 million in economic damage each year in Australia. No wonder Aussies like the idea of an Easter-bunny substitute.

The bilby is fighting back. Coles Supermarkets, which makes and markets the chocolates, approached Australian wildlife groups for ideas to help save the bilby. The groups set up a Save the Bilby Fund. Coles contributes 50 cents (Australian; about 33 cents US) to the fund for every bilby chocolate it sells.

Though bunnies are still Australia's most popular Easter chocolate, bilbies are catching on. So far, the supermarket has raised more than $100,000 (US $67,000) to locate bilby populations and replenish them.

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