THEY are a beloved, pudgy little creature unique to our country but their future is increasingly under threat.
Though humans are the largest threat to wombat populations around Australia as the marsupials are being killed on roads, due to habitat clearing, illegal hunting and culling on private properties, a devastating health condition is also impacting the species' future.
Surprisingly, not a whole lot of research has been conducted about the species due to their being a shy and elusive nocturnal animal that is difficult for researchers to study but one thing that is clear is that for wombats that contract Sarcoptic Mange, a common condition among wombats, the prognosis is dire.
Wombat mange causes immense suffering for animals that contract the mite infestation as a skin infection and thick scabs over the animal's body come in conjunction with a host of health problems that result in the wombat's health rapidly declining, resulting in death.
WOMBAT MANGE VICTORIA
A volunteer organisation called Mange Management is working to treat the disease by giving out more than 500 free mange treatment kits each year.
Volunteers distribute the free kits to 55 pick-up points around the state so people can treat wombats on their own properties with either an application of Cydectin administered via a flap placed over an active burrow or by a dosage administered with a long pole.
Secretary Katja Gutwein said whole wombat populations had been wiped out around Australia due to mange, including in Victoria.
"Between mange, habitat loss, road kill and illegal killing, wombats are becoming threatened a lot faster than we'd like," she said.
"If we don't do anything now, within the next 30 years wombats might become an endangered species. They are an iconic native Australian animal so we can't afford to lose them."
More needs to be done, she said, including population surveys to determine how many wombats there are in Australia and how many have mange as well to determine if it is necessary to put the species on the threatened species list.
Ms Gutwein said the government needed to step up and join them in the fight against mange and to allocate funding for more research and equipment.
How Mange Management treats wombats:
Gayle Chappell, an environmental scientist who runs Hepburn Wildlife Shelter, has been caring for and rehabilitating wildlife for more than 20 years.
She and partner Jon Rowden have treated many wombats infected with mange but it is a very difficult condition to treat because it is not known what causes it.
"We have tried so hard to save infected wombats but it's a very difficult thing to treat. The problem with mange is that so little is known about it. We don't know which wombats get the mange, we don't know if they're old wombats, immuno-compromised wombats, or wombats stressed from environmental changes," she said.
Though foxes have long been blamed for spreading mange in wombats, there is no concrete evidence to confirm this.
"It is very difficult to know how to treat something that you know so little about," Ms Chappell said.
After a sarcoptic mange outbreak occurred in Narawntapu National Park in 2010, devastating the wombat population and depleting it by 90 per cent, researchers stepped in.
A mange treatment program was recently conducted in Tasmania but was deemed unsuccessful by University of Tasmania researchers.
The researchers told the ABC they found that though the wombats' condition improved during their treatment, all of the animals died after the disease returned.
Ms Chappell said mange was not generally noticed until the infestation was so far advanced that the animal has a number of health issues, with the organs beginning to fail and signs of anaemia and starvation evident.
For most, their health is too compromised and they need to be euthanised.
When treating wombats for mange, Ms Chappell would bring the wombats into care and treat them as a critical care patient: treating them for health issues first to strengthen them while concurrently treating the mange topically, prior to administering the stronger chemicals to kill the mites.
Though treatment appears to work for a period, for most wombats that are infected with mange, the infestation recurs, compromising the wombat's health.
"Unfortunately when you treat mange in a wombat, you don't get a 100 per cent strike rate from the treatment. You can't kill all the mange mites," she said. "The wombats, even though they appear to recover really well, and they look healthier, they still have mites on them."
Ms Chappell said treating wombats at the shelter was preferable to treating them in the wild, where it was difficult to monitor dosages and which wombat was actually being treated by the contraption.
This can cause a whole lot of problems.
She said many of the current wombat mange treatment programs were not a cure at all and were brought about by desperation because nobody knows how to treat the condition.
She called for more funding and research into the species and mange so that carers are no longer "stabbing in the dark and trying to deal with the symptoms rather than the causes".
Wombats came under the limelight last month when it was revealed that they were being illegally hunted in Victoria's south east.
At this time it was also brought to light that in some parts of Victoria, where it is deemed wombat populations need to be 'controlled', it is legal to cull wombats without a permit.
Western Victoria MP Andy Meddick said protecting wombats was a top priority of his and took the issue to parliament several weeks ago.
He will be pushing for funding in the next state budget for more research into wombat mange, a population study as well as funding for kits for landowners.
"Sadly, Victoria is the only state in Australia where wombats are not fully protected under the Wildlife Act," he said.
"Assistance from the government is desperately needed to fix the problem at its core. I have asked the Minister for the Environment to work with me to help our iconic bare-nosed friends before it is too late."
Environment Minister Lily D'Ambrosio has directed her department to review the rules to better understand the distribution and numbers of wild wombats and the threats they may be facing that will impact their long-term conservation.
A government spokesperson said it was necessary to ensure wombats, like all wildlife in Victoria, were adequately protected.
"That's why we are reviewing the rules to ensure the protection of wombat populations," they said.
The review began in August and is expected to be completed by the end of this year.
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