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Wombats pushed to the brink. ABC Rural news article TV & Print 7.1.2023

Warning wombats on brink of being critically endangered as burrows wash out, diseases spread

By Hamish Cole
Posted 
Play Video. Duration: 2 minutes 11 seconds
Washed out wombats given helping hand with floods.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Conservationists warn wombats in areas affected by the New South Wales floods are at risk of becoming critically endangered as they struggle against habitat loss, disease and pneumonia.

Wombat populations have been devastated in recent years by bushfires and the spread of mange, a parasite that is often fatal for the animal. 

Now, the heavy rainfall that has impacted large parts of the state is destroying wombat burrows. 

Diana Bisset has rescued dozens of wombats at her property near Wombeyan Caves in the state's central tablelands.

"With the flooding rains after the fires and continuing now, the water just percolates straight down and fills the burrows," she said.

"The wombats are getting pneumonia. They are cold in winter and just getting sicker." 

A man and a woman standing next to a shed over a hole
Diana and Warrick Bisset have built burrow shelters to protect wombats from the floods. (ABC Central West: Hamish Cole )

In an effort to protect the species from the wild weather, Ms Bisset has turned to creating homemade shelters using logs and metal sheets. 

"We have come up with putting shelters over the ends of burrows. We have put sticks and logs down so when the water hits it goes around the burrows. 

"It has given them an option in the wet, even if it is just sheltering them from the worst of it, they can be in a dry burrow."

A wombat sitting under a metal barrel
Dozens of wombats have lived on Diana Bisset's property during the floods.(ABC Central West: Hamish Cole)

Pushed to the brink 

John Creighton rescues wombats near Bundanoon in the NSW Southern Highlands, a region that was decimated by Black Summer bushfires three years ago.

Mr Creighton said the displacement of wombats due to the floods has increased the number of animals being involved in road accidents by three times. 

"The flooded burrows moved them further onto the roads so we had more roadkill to deal with. The call-outs have really hit higher than I have ever had. 

"People believe they are more populated or it doesn't look like the wombats suffered, in fact they did, these are the survivors from the fires looking for food and shelter."

A wombat with large scabs and a line of blue mange treatment down its back.
Unless treated, mange is almost always fatal in wombats. (Supplied: Melinda Kerr)

Mange is a parasite that buries itself under the wombat's skin, causing extreme itchiness. 

This often results in open wounds developing on the animal, which when infected leads to a slow death. 

Mr Creighton said the incidence of mange has increased as wombats were forced to move to find dry shelter.

"The wombats are looking for food and shelter in a more condensed area so those mites are going to jump onto more wombats, so that population will have more mange," he said.

"It is really pushing all of the issues that we have dealt with in the past and cranked up the volume on that." 

Future at risk 

According to the International Union for Conservation, the bare-nosed wombats conservation status is listed as 'Least Concern', the lowest ranking possible. 

However, as the animal is nocturnal, accurately determining population numbers has been a challenge for researchers. 

close up of two small wombats
Melinda Kerr says they have seen a decline in wombat populations on the Central Tablelands. (Supplied: Rocklily Wombats )

According to Melinda Kerr from Kanimbla Wombats near Oberon, the wombat may soon go the way of the platypus and koala by becoming critically endangered. 

"Unfortunately we are at pretty serious risk of losing our wombats in the future unless there is some drastic action done," she said. 

Ms Kerr said numbers had declined "considerably" due to the introduction of diseases, urban development, fires and floods. 

"When you look at maps from pre-settlement population areas of wombats you can see a pretty clear change in where wombats used to be. 

"Compare it to the little data that we currently do have and the small, little pockets that wombats are found in now, it is a pretty dramatic change."