Some of Australia's cutest and cuddliest mammals live in the soil: the Wombat. Our burrowing friend is suffering from a cruel disease and it has the potential to wipe out the population.
Australia has 3 species of Wombat. The mammals are known colloquially as 'bulldozers of the bush'. They are sedentary animals that create large burrows for nesting. Wombats are the mascot of Australia's animal protection agency, RSPCA. Wombats come out at night, and it is rare to see one during the day. If you do see one, it is probably suffering from mange.
Wombats, young, old, healthy or sick are being inflicted with mange. Mange is caused by scabies, or sarcoptes scabiei, a small mite. The mite originally comes from domestic animals, such as dogs, and can also cause scabies in humans. In Wombats, mange causes fly-blown sores, blindness and weakens the animal, making them more susceptible to secondary infection, starvation and eventually a slow and painful death. Whilst it is easily treatable in dogs and humans, mange is much more difficult to manage in the Wombat population. This is partially due to being 'wild animals', but also because their burrows are infected and also need to be treated. Without treatment, mange will continue to spread throughout the population with the potential of extinction of our soil-burrowing friend.
A young wombat I saw with mange in Deua National Park. Note the large sore.
How are we dealing with the problem?
I have heard and read different personal accounts of the issue. WombatEchidna say that it is only a problem in certain categories of wombat, and they have a set of rules they follow to determine if they will treat a wombat. Wombat Protection Society (WPS) also discuss issues regarding treatment of mange. They have groups working on mange eradication programs throughout Australia. The Wombat Awareness Organisation has also received its first government sponsored grant for mange eradication programs. Landholders are also known to shoot or euthanize wombats with mange in the hope of limiting the spread of the disease, and to free the wombat of its suffering.
A blind friend
Research has also been undertaken by various universities. The WPS discusses a large amount of research undertaken regarding mange treatment, spotting mange and mange spread. They have also held symposiums regarding mange. Laura Ruykys has looked into mange in the southern-hairy nose wombat population. She determined the need to reduce culling quotas due to the decline of the population from mange infection. However, there has been little research done into the management of mange in the wild population. Skerratt et al found that there was limited spread of mange after a deliberate introduction into a community. However, this also does not explain why the disease is spreading into National Parks. Spread of mange into remote areas would be caused by other wombats or wild domestic animals (dogs etc). Further research is required to look at the behaviour of wombats, transmission of the disease and effectiveness of different treatments in the wild population.
Where to from here?
Awareness and community action is potentially the only way to save our bulldozers. Interlinked with research, a program like ClimateWatch or DustWatch could be brought in for Wombats: WombatWatch. Volunteers would look out for infected wombats, report to a database, and they could then be treated. To promote and campaign for funding, a champion is needed. Perhaps the RSPCA, with its small-wombat mascot, will step up to the plate. Government backing of community programs would also be required for continuity in public lands, and the potential of economic support. Without more financial and community support, we risk loosing the last three species of our cuddly friend.
What can you do?
For more information on getting involved, talk to the Wombat Protection Society or Wombat Awareness Organisation.