The Trouble with Wombats and How to Help

a healthy blue mountains wombat

A healthy wombat. (Supplied)

These hairy, furry balls of cuteness are one of Australia’s most appealing animals, but many wombats are dying painful deaths from an infectious parasite. We joined the volunteers on a mission to save local wombats.

Key Points:

  • Mange is a parasite that proves fatal to wombats if left untreated and is decimating immunocompromised wombat populations after the recent drought, fire and floods.

  • The Blue Mountains Wombat Conservation Group is working to save wombats in the Megalong Valley but relies on donations of lids and corflute, and financial donations for the heavy cost of the Moxidectin treatment and the much-needed fauna cameras. They are also keen to attract more volunteers.

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It feels like a covert operation. We’re dressed in sturdy shoes and warm clothes on a chilly day in the Megalong Valley, armed with makeshift poles to administer emergency treatment to sick wombats.

I’m instructed to be as quiet as possible. It’s the middle of the day but we can’t risk scaring the wombats away. It’s vital they get their treatment if they have any hope of survival.

Melina Budden, founder of the Blue Mountains Wombat Conservation Group, is leading me and another volunteer. It’s part of a weekly ritual, volunteers making the downward trek from the upper Blue Mountains far into the dirt roads of the Megalong Valley.

wombat mange in the blue mountains

Wombat Veronica sadly could not be saved. She died of renal failure not long after this photo was taken. (Supplied)

Here in the Valley, Melina and her team have named each of the wombats as they attempt to slow the spread of mange, a parasite that proves fatal to wombats if left untreated.

Today we’re expecting to see Eve, a wombat they successfully treated two years ago, now in danger again.

On cue, beautiful but bedraggled Eve appears just as Melina said she would. While we think of wombats as nocturnal creatures, they’re now venturing out in daylight for food, malnourished by the mange.

As Eve tentatively lumbers towards us, Melina remarks that she’s looking improved. To me, she still seems crusty and rough around the edges; a far cry from a postcard-cute wombat.

Anyone who’s encountered a wombat with mange will be familiar with the look: they’re often flyblown, with raw skin where they’ve been scratching and sometimes bloody, open wounds.

What’s less obvious is that they’re also dying from secondary infections, severe malnourishment, renal failure or from being hit by vehicles due to failing sight and hearing loss caused by mange.

As Melina approaches holding the pole and scoop filled with the chemical Moxidectin to treat the wombat from a distance, Eve lollops away, dodging the cure that could save her life.

treating wombat mange in the blue mountains

Melina Budden treating wombats with the ‘pole & scoop’ method. (Supplied)

Eventually Melina catches up with her and Eve gets two doses, but she will need more.

It’s difficult to combat mange in the wild because wombats need a series of treatments, not just one. In total, each wombat requires a weekly dose for fifteen weeks, making it a costly and labour-intensive process.

A zoologist, Melina travels weekly from Sydney while juggling paid jobs and a PhD. The work can be challenging at times – scrambling around uneven terrain trying to find mange-inflicted wombats and keeping a rigorous record of treatment.

As well as the pole and scoop method, the volunteers place corflute flaps – made from old real estate signs – at each burrow and pour the Moxidectin into a recycled plastic jar lid above the flap. When a wombat ventures in or out of the burrow, the treatment spills onto them.

Afterwards, Melina and the crew check the fauna cameras that track the wombats’ movements day and night, making note of who got the flap treatment and how many times.

volunteers treating  wombat mange in the blue mountains

Melina Budden and fellow volunteer Freya Carnie check the fauna cameras. (Liz Durnan)

The mange is so infectious they put flaps at every burrow they find within a one-kilometre radius of an affected wombat so that every wombat is treated.

“We always try to treat the whole population,” Melina says, “because an infected wombat will bring it back to the burrow and spread it everywhere.”

While it might seem like a makeshift process, it’s still the tried and tested method used around the state by wildlife groups and volunteers.

But Melina sees it as a short-term solution: “Essentially we’re just buying time,” she says. “It’s a band aid.”

There are other species of wombat with diminished numbers: the northern hairy-nosed wombat, now only found in Queensland, is officially endangered and the southern hairy-nosed wombat, found in South Australia, is classified as near-threatened. The population of bare-nosed wombats in Tasmania declined by more than 80% after a sarcoptic mange outbreak.

Today we’re dealing with the bare-nosed wombat, formerly known as the common wombat. While Melina tells me there are calls to get this wombat listed under the IUCN red list of threatened species, there’s no official agreement on the threat level it currently faces.

Last year though, the NSW Government earmarked $2.8 million to address mange.

Melina hopes that community groups like hers will receive a fraction of the funding. “It’s community groups that are doing the work on the ground to tackle the issue,” she says.

Meanwhile, her group relies on donations of lids and corflute, and financial donations for the heavy cost of the Moxidectin treatment and the much-needed fauna cameras.

checking wombat burrows

Volunteers Freya Carnie and Melina Budden checking the flaps at a wombat burrow. (Liz Durnan)

She would also love to see more research into the reason why sarcoptic mange is affecting wombats so severely. The mange is also known as scabies, a parasite introduced by European settlers and their animals. It affects other animals, including humans, dogs, and kangaroos, but doesn’t usually kill them. It’s a different story for wombats, but no one knows why.

While mange isn’t a new issue for wombats, Melina tells me the situation is particularly dire right now due to a series of extreme environmental events, such as drought, bushfires, then multiple floods, causing them to become severely immunocompromised.

In addition to lack of research and funding, volunteers can sometimes face resistance from landowners and farmers, who have traditionally seen wombats as pests.

While it’s true that a combination of land clearing and wombat burrowing can cause damage to farming land and infrastructure, the wombats have a positive function. Melina reports that some farmers are becoming more sympathetic to their plight:

“I call them the engineers of the environment,” Melina says. “Yes, they make a hole, but they’re improving the soil health by allowing the continuation of the soil nutrient cycle.”

As well as much needed funds, the Blue Mountains Wombat Conservation Group is always on the lookout for volunteers.

“We’re going to have to expand because this is the worst we’ve ever seen it and we’re having to go back to areas we already treated three years ago.”

Despite the naming and bonding, Melina is keen to seek volunteers looking for more than a “selfie with a cuddly wombat.” The work is rewarding though, and they ask for a regular commitment of just a couple of days each month. The group now comprises around 40 volunteers.

 wombat treated for mange in the blue mountains

After weeks of treatment, Eve is clear of mange but needs to regain her weight and hair. (Liz Durnan)

Despite the difficulties, Melina is motivated to keep going by the small wins they see each week. They regularly document these on their social media accounts to gain support for the cause. “If one person tells ten people and those ten tell another ten, it will have a ripple effect,” she says.

While there’s no consensus among wildlife groups and scientists on exactly how much trouble wombats face, Melina urges fast action before it’s too late, citing inaction on other species leading to disaster.

“There have been many common species in Australia, and we thought we didn’t need to intervene,” she says.

“But we see these once common species, like the Greater Glider, going from common to endangered in one fell swoop and we shouldn’t be waiting until they’re in danger before we intervene.”

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This story has been produced as part of a Bioregional Collaboration for Planetary Health and is supported by the Disaster Risk Reduction Fund (DRRF). The DRRF is jointly funded by the Australian and New South Wales governments.

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About Liz Durnan

Liz Durnan has been writing and editing for digital and print media for over twenty five years, with an interest in sustainable building and travel, food and books. She has lived in cities all over the world, including London, New York and Sydney, before settling in the Blue Mountains where she has built a solar-passive strawbale home. When not writing, she loves cooking, overnight bushwalks and camping.

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