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Worrying about Wombats

This young Bare -Nosed or Common Wombat (Ursinus vulgaris) is about four years old. They take a long time to reach maturity and are no longer so common in Tasmania


 World Wombat Day is or was on Thursday 22nd October, depending on which time zone you are in.  Wombats are another unique Australian animal at risk of disappearing not unlike its nearest relative, the Koala. Wombats are the endearing furry, ‘round boys’ of the Australian bush, weighing in at 20 -30 Kgs and are about a metre in length. Being marsupials they keep their joeys in a pouch and come out at dusk to graze on grasses, shrubs and roots. Their pouches face backwards so that their young don’t get covered in dirt when the adult wombat digs – something they do exceptionally well. They sleep 16 hours a day and can live up to 26 years. If I had to pick my spiritual animal, a wombat would be it. Read more about wombats here

There are three species of wombat in Australia. The Northern Hairy Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii) is on the endangered species list because there are only 160 left in the world. It exists only in one small pocket of Queensland. While somewhat more numerous, the Southern Hairy -Nosed Wombat Lasiorhinus latifronsis lives in a few highly fragmented arid regions in Southern New Wales, Victoria and South Australia. It is now regarded as endangered in New South Wales and near threatened in South Australia which claims it as its state emblem. In other states, even if wombats have managed to survive the fires because of their underground burrows, they will still be in dire straits because they have to compete for what little vegetation remains.


The ultimate wombat movie. I don’t know where this was filmed but it looks very much like the alpine vegetation around Cradle Mountain


If that wasn’t enough both the Southern Hairy -Nosed wombat and the third  type,  the Common or Bare – Nosed wombat (Ursinus vulgaris) which was prevalent throughout South Eastern Australia and  Tasmania, are now  also struggling due to a different threat  -sarcoptic mange -a debilitating parasitic infestation, which usually leads to slow death due to secondary infection unless treated early.


In 1996  the population of Bare Nosed wombats was estimated to be in the order of 4000 and thus of Least Concern,  according to the ICUN, but more recent studies put the figure at less than 80 -90% of former numbers . In Tasmania’s Narawntapu National Park alone, the population has declined  by 94% since 2010 because of Sarcoptic mange and they are certainly not common any more. I didn’t see a single wombat in my trip through a good part of the state last week, when you could usually count on seeing at least two or three, even if one of them might be as roadkill.  


 Once again, land clearing is a major culprit. Even before the huge death toll from the fires,  forest clearance and development were forcing wombats to leave their territories and face more competition for food and for mates, as well as exposing them to predators and traffic. Unlawful killing of wombats also occurs because they compete with grazing animals and dig inconvenient burrows which damage things like crops and fences.

Climate Change poses its own threat,  not just in the immediate sense through catastrophic droughts, floods and  more frequent and intense fires, but because ranges will change and most likely contract, leaving wombats and other species insufficient time to adapt, especially those such as the Northern and Southern Hairy nosed wombats whose range is already extremely limited. 

Given the global uniqueness of our wildlife, far more should be done to protect it. Though it is illegal to kill or take our native wildlife including wombats - farmers can get permits, existing laws aren't enforced adequately and there isn't a lot of monitoring going on except in some of our wildlife sanctuaries. Some wildlife organisations such as Bush Heritage and the Australian Conservation Foundation are working hard to help wombats and the rest of our wildlife, but the government should be doing much more to protect our unique animals rather than just paying lip service to conservation or relying on those who exploit the land to do the right thing. Substitution of other random land for critical habitat taken for mining or development for example, has not proven to be very effective. Funding cuts are making it hard to protect species even within national parks. Piecemeal efforts to save one little corner or one species or another won't ensure their survival either, if the overarching issues such as Climate Change continue to be ignored. Not that we should stop trying.

I want to put in a bit of a plug here for the University of Tasmania, whose researchers are working to defeat sarcoptic mange the disease which is decimating our wombat populations. Not that it's always about donating either. The next post will be about other ways to help our troubled wildlife. 

Warning: Just because wombats look incredibly cute doesn't mean that they make good pets. Not only are they a lot of hard work initially - the one at the top - about 10 cms long, blind and hairless when she arrived, had to be fed with an eye dropper every three hours and almost died when I left her alone for an hour. [ I also carried her under my smock all day, every day for her first twelve months] - but they can also become aggressive and destructive when mature. I have seen this happen, especially with male wombats. Ours on the other hand, having bonded so closely, went into terminal decline when we sent her to a wild life park, rather than releasing her in the wild, as she kept coming back to the house. Watch the video below to see what I mean. Allow wombats to be wild animals not something to satisfy a human need.