A century and a half ago it was an act of desperation, but today a decision by struggling European colonists in northern Australia has been recognised as an unexpected conservation success story. When British settlers established the outpost of Victoria on Australia's tropical north coast in 1838, they hoped it would become a second Singapore. But the tiny settlement, on the rugged Cobourg Peninsula, was ravaged by cyclones and malaria and had to be abandoned in 1849. Before leaving, the colonists set free 20 banteng, a rare type of wild ox which they had brought from Bali to provide a ready supply of milk and meat. The banteng thrived in the swamps and monsoon forests of the peninsula, so much so that a recent report by scientists at Charles Darwin University, in Darwin, estimates that their numbers have now grown to nearly 10,000 - the largest herd in the world. The finding is all the more significant because banteng - or Bos javanicus - are endangered in their native ranges of Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam. 'This herd is a crucial buffer against extinction because the wild population is declining as a result of hunting and habitat loss,' said Corey Bradshaw, from the university. 'In 20 or 30 years they may be the only wild banteng left in the world.' Small and slender, banteng have a distinctive white patch on the rump and white, stocking-like markings on their legs. They live within the sprawling Garig Gunak Barlu National Park, 480km northeast of Darwin. Park rangers and local Aborigines, who jointly run the reserve, are working on how best to manage the herd. One option is to expand a small safari hunting operation which currently allows big-game hunters, mostly from Germany and the United States, to shoot 45 trophy bulls each year. Fees paid by the hunters are an important source of income for local Aborigines. 'The number of banteng we allow to be shot is a tiny proportion of the available herd,' said John Christophersen, an Aborigine who heads the Cobourg Peninsula Sanctuary and Marine Park board. 'The rest just grow old and die.' Some banteng may be sent to Indonesia, to restock dwindling populations there. National park authorities are also looking at tapping into the exotic meat market, with the prospect of banteng steaks being sold in Australian supermarkets alongside kangaroo and camel meat. But Mr Christophersen concedes that it is an acquired taste. 'It's got a very different texture to beef,' he said. 'The fat is different, too. At the end of eating a bit of banteng your mouth is all waxy, and you feel like you've been chewing a candle.'