Like their closest relative the koala, wombats are facing an uncertain future.
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is one of the world’s rarest mammals, classified as ‘critically endangered’, there are estimated to be just 250 Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats living on two remaining sites in Queensland. The Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat of the arid areas of South Australia is classified as ‘near threatened’ and its population highly fragmented. The Bare-nosed Wombat (previously known as the Common Wombat) of the South Eastern states are more numerous, but wombat populations are under continued pressure from reduction of habitat from land clearing, road mortality, illegal shooting and now, growing rates of disease - specifically Sarcoptic Mange (Sarcoptes scabiei), more commonly known as scabies.
Sarcoptic Mange – What is it ?
Sarcoptic Mange is a highly contagious parasitic mite infestation that burrows under the skin, eating the hosts living cells and fluids.
The mite likely arrived in Australia with European colonists and introduced animals including the Red Fox approximately 200 years ago. While Mange can affect many different species, wombats are highly susceptible given their burrows provide optimal conditions for the mites to survive and spread among local populations.
Mange causes intense itching and scratching which proves severely debilitating to wombats. Despite being nocturnal animals, Mange affected wombats are often seen during the day foraging for food because of the high energy intake needed to fight the disease and maintain body temperature - in fact a wombat suffering from Mange can spend up to 14 hours foraging for food where normally they forage for just 2 to 4 hours. Infected wombats also lose the hair on their head, legs and sides, with their skin becoming reddened, thickened and crusty, and scabs forming around eyes and ears impacting on their sight and hearing.
The extreme bodily stress of a Mange infection leads to affected wombats often appearing lethargic and in poor condition - they may appear hunched, emaciated and walk uncomfortably due to the pain associated with the scabs splitting and bleeding.
Without treatment, Mange affected wombats rarely survive, with death usually resulting from secondary infection, as well as starvation or flystrike.
What is the scale of the problem and how is it treated?
Today, Mange is recognised as one of the main causes of death in Southern Hairy-nosed and Bare-nosed Wombats, with significant wombat population declines due to Mange having been observed in both NSW and Tasmania. Most recently, a 2020 study into Sarcoptic Mange in Bare-nosed Wombats reported that across Australia-wide study sites Mange prevalence was between 7.0% and 40.7%, with rates of sarcoptic mange prevalence correlating with yearly rainfall (a higher incidence of sarcoptic mange occurring in higher-rainfall years).
Troublingly there is no method to eradicate Mange in wombats (fumigation of burrows is not possible due to welfare concerns), however individual treatment is possible.
Currently wombats are treated for mange via regular doses of moxidectin (over four months), though ensuring a regular dose is often challenging given wombats are wild animals. Often treatment is placed on man-made burrow flaps with wombats ‘self treating’ as they enter and exit their burrows.
To try and combat the difficulties of multiple doses, trialling of a new treatment method using a systemic insecticide (Bravecto®) is currently underway. This new treatment method involves a one-off dose that can provide at least 3-months protection, with preliminary results from these trials looking promising.
What can governments do?
There appears no data on wombat populations in many regions. There is a need for a scientific, coordinated, long term national government program to raise awareness, collect data, fund research, understand and manage the mange crisis affecting wombats across all affected states and territories.
Colonisation introduced this disease to our native animals and we have a collective responsibility to help correct this problem.
What can I do to help?
Donate to one of the wombat refuges by sponsoring a wombat. It costs carers around $1400 and up to 2.5 years to raise an orphaned baby wombat pinkie to release-ready adulthood. Carers receive no government assistance and rely on the kindness and generosity of the public to fund ongoing care. Make sure to visit Wombat Rescue HERE.
Also consider donating to the Animal Justice Party who are working from inside Parliament to help protect and preserve our iconic native species.
Give your time by volunteering at your nearest local wildlife refuge. Widespread help is needed from volunteers to care for affected wombats as the treatment is an ongoing process. Contact the Wombat Protection Society for your nearest wildlife shelter HERE.
If you live in the Greater Sydney area, you can also volunteer to join the Bents Basin Wombat Program to directly treat wombats with Sarcoptic Mange - READ MORE HERE.
Become a member of the Animal Justice Party. With a greater number of members your membership allows The AJP to have more of a voice when lobbying government on animal welfare issues. Our MP’s can raise awareness and advocate for government funded projects to help monitor, research and treat the disease as has occurred with the facial tumours of the Tasmanian devil.
In 2019, our Victorian MP Andy Meddick called on government to shut wombat hunting down after it was revealed wombats were being hunted by wealthy tourists at a ranch in Victoria. Victorian Law has been amended and now wombats are protected in every state and territory in which they reside and cannot be killed (without a permit). Your membership helps support our candidates and campaigns like this to help protect and reduce the suffering of all animals. BECOME A MEMBER HERE.
Author: Sheila Millgate, Animal Justice Party Member
Aph.gov.au. 2018. Submission 413 Attachment 2 - National Report: Australia’S Response To Sarcoptic Mange In Wombats. [online] Available at: <https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Environment_and_Communications/Faunalextinction/Submissions> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Department of Primary industries, Parks, Water and Environment. 2020. Wombat Mange Faqs. [online] Available at: <https://dpipwe.tas.gov.au/wildlife-management/fauna-of-tasmania/mammals/possums-kangaroos-and-wombats/wombat/wombat-mange/wombat-mange-faqs> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Old, J., Sengupta, C., Narayan, E. and Wolfenden, J., 2017. Sarcoptic mange in wombats-A review and future research directions. Transboundary and Emerging Diseases, [online] 65(2), pp.399-407. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321148302_Sarcoptic_mange_in_wombats-A_review_and_future_research_directions> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Osbourne, T. and Gilbert, E., 2017. Call For Volunteers To Help Treat Wombats 'Itching To Death'. [online] abc.net.au. Available at: <https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-15/call-for-canberra-volunteers-to-treat-wombat-mange/8273562> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Stannard, H., Wolfenden, J., Hermsen, E., Vallin, B., Hunter, N. and Old, J., 2020. Incidence of sarcoptic mange in bare-nosed wombats (Vombatus ursinus). Australian Mammalogy, [online] Available at: <https://www.publish.csiro.au/AM/AM20001> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Wildlife Health Australia, 2017. Sarcoptic Mange In Australian Wildlife. [online] Wildlife Health Australia. Available at: <https://wildlifehealthaustralia.com.au/Portals/0/Documents/FactSheets/Mammals/Sarcoptic%20Mange%20in%20Australian%20Wildlife.pdf> [Accessed 18 January 2021].
Worthington, J., 2020. UTAS Wombat Mange Research Trial Are Showing Positive Results Says Researchers. [online] The Examiner. Available at: <https://www.examiner.com.au/story/6829280/wombat-mange-treatment-trials-promising-researcher/> [Accessed 18 January 2021].