Tom Melville 0:00 Hi, I'm Tom Melville, and welcome to voice of real Australia. Each episode we bring new people, places and perspectives from beyond the big cities. Coming across a wombat in the wild is a rare treat. They're usually pretty shy and only come out at night. But the cuddly furballs are in trouble has individuals throughout their range of being disfigured by a parasite mange. The skin becomes concrete and cracks. They get fly blown and walk around with open wounds. They lose their hearing and their eyesight. They rot to death, often dying from secondary infections, starvation, or from wandering blindly onto the road. One that seemed to be particularly vulnerable to mange an infestation of parasitic mites. Other animals usually just shake it off, but in wombats, it has a 100% kill rate if left untreated. Some local populations of wombats have nearly been wiped out by me. So what's being done to help them? Produce Laura Corrigan followed a group of volunteers in the Blue Mountains, we're trying to save the one bats.
Melina Budden 1:05 So essentially, it's just like a like in a kitchen. Now you have the doors that flip open and shut. If one bat comes out, this will go down, it's back and for one back goes forward, it will come down.
Laura Corrigan 1:17 Melina Budden is showing me how she treats wombats for mange in the wild. We're on the Allen's property, 250 acres in the Megalong Valley, deep in the Blue Mountains, about two hours from Sydney. It's a gray day. Billows of fog drape down the sandstone escarpments that overlook the valley phantom waterfalls.
Melina Budden 1:38 I currently live in Lake Macquarie, and I've driven all the way up to the Blue Mountains, which is about into the megalong Valley, which is even further so it's a three to three and a half hour drive. At some points. Last year, I was driving up to four and a half hours to get to a site to treat Wombats. And that's every week. That's every single week.
Laura Corrigan 1:55 Melina is an ecologist and a zoologist. She's worked for national parks and the Department of Planning industry and environment. But today she's a wombat warrior. A wildlife volunteer giving up her time and money to help wombats Why do you do it?
Melina Budden 2:12 Because I care way too much. I'm an I'm an empath, unfortunately. I think what you see what happened after the fires and what I think once you see what the pain that these animals are in, and when you see that the government's doing nothing. I have to step up.
Laura Corrigan 2:26 Melina is the kind of person who tells you the names of the flowers he pass oxalis the Latin names, she names the birds we can hear and today she has a special wombat warrior with her -- a timid dog Aries that she's been fostering and can't leave alone, not for one minute. Aries is being trained as an eco dog, but still will keep her away from any wildlife.
Melina Budden 2:48 Every time we find a mangy wombat, we give it a name and we photograph it and obviously we treat it directly first, and then eventually so for the first four to five weeks, we treat it directly with the pole and scoop and then after that as it starts to get better. We've tried to find out where it's borrowers and we treat them with the flaps.
Laura Corrigan 3:04 Melina is crouched in front of a wombat hole, topping up the treatment dose on a burrow flap. The flaps are made from pieces of corflute for sale signs donated by the local century 21. They swing on a metal frame that spiked into the ground at the entrance of the wombats home. A Vegemite lead is fixed into a slot in the flap. This is what Melina is topping up with the chemical moxidectin also known by its brand name side actin. The clear liquid used on label to treat cattle for mange is dyed blue so it can be identified and doses can be tracked. Lina calls the chemical Blue Gold.
Melina Budden 3:40 Okay, the cheapest we found. We buy a cheap knockoff called Moxidectin. Five liters will cost $420 Laura Corrigan 3:49 And how many treatments
Melina Budden 3:52 so a property like this where we have about 23 flaps out? The five litres will probably cover around eight weeks, and we're going to do 15 weeks. So it gets expensive.
Laura Corrigan 4:04 A couple of weeks ago, a wombat was put down on this property. Fritz. He was old, riddled with mange and had secondary injuries that affected his walking. Molina enlisted the help of a local landowner and retired vet John Isbister. to euthanize Fritz. John isn't exactly a wombat warrior,
John Isbister 4:23 or not a lover of wombats. I'm a property owner down here. So when I mentioned one betters quite often attached to an expletive the damage they do to fences and in my experience over 50 years, they're in plague proportions here, way, way more than they used to be.
Laura Corrigan 4:41 So why are you involved in helping treat them?
John Isbister 4:44 I don't mind wombats Don't get the wrong idea. They're part of nature. There are there are native animal and I love love the things really, I just like a bit of balance. And I'm not sure why but things have got a bit out of balance.
Laura Corrigan 4:57 Despite his initial skepticism. John let's Melina and others from the Blue Mountains wildlife volunteers group treat Wombats on his property and was happy to help when asked. The volunteers called John's property crispy named after its resident mangy wombat,
Melina Budden 5:14 we usually get contacted by property owner because they'll find one major one that that magic wand that will get a name, the one unfortunate that we named on his property was called crispy because the one on his property wanted to warm itself in the fire.
John Isbister 5:26 Going and he he came down and hung around, he was
Melina Budden 5:29 He had no fear, it was quite cold. So I think he was trying to heat himself up because once they when they got made, and they're emaciated, because essentially, it's a parasite or take away a lot of their food resources. So they get really skinny, they can't maintain their own body heat. So I'm assuming with this guy, he was trying to warm himself up, hence the name crispy because I think he wanted to get into fire.
Laura Corrigan 5:48 John says he's seen an improvement in the health of the Wombats on his land.
John Isbister 5:52 So I must admit, I was pretty skeptical about it. When I was approached about this, I thought I'd tell you exactly what I said. But I was very skeptical that the whole thing was going to prove anything and that it was going to work. To my surprise, certainly the one better around my place, anywhere near the creek. They're certainly looking better. No doubt about that. Now, whether that overall is going to benefit the wombat population. I don't know. Time will tell but boy, it's a pretty good start.
Laura Corrigan 6:21 But unfortunately, he thinks he might have caught something from Fritz.
John Isbister 6:25 I'm a little bit suspicious. I'm more itchy than normal. But I've had it three or four times and you've been my my veterinary career was quite an easy thing to trade know there's quite an easy thing to treat in animals, except for one better course because you can't just walk up to every every one bit, walk around the paddock and put the trade mat on. And that's what this program is all about.
Laura Corrigan 6:45 That's right. Humans can catch mange from wombats. We call it scabies. Molina has caught it a few times. It can attack a whole range of animals, including cattle. In fact, it's believed mange came to Australia on humans and their dogs.
Scott Carver 7:00 sarcoptic mange is a disease that occurs in lots of different mammal species around the world. Nearly 150 Actually, and actually in Australia, we have records of convicts on ships with scabies disease, which is the human form of it and with people with their dogs having made that date back well over 100 years.
Laura Corrigan 7:21 This is Dr. Scott Carver, a wildlife ecologist at the University of Tasmania. He's been researching wombat main, she saw how the parasite devastated the wombat population in neuron Tupou National Park, on Tasmania's North Coast, reducing the population by 94%, in seven years,
Scott Carver 7:38 and what happened at that site was that there was this massive outbreak of mange that happen there and swept from the east side of this national park across to the west side slowly over a few years, basically driving the population to very near local extinction.
Laura Corrigan 7:55 But Scott says for the most part, mange doesn't cause conservation impacts, that it's not an extinction threat to the wombat species as a whole.
Scott Carver 8:05 We know that it's been around for at least a century and one that if not two centuries. So it's probably at some sort of stable level, whatever that is. Available. Research suggests that the average level of mange over large sort of spatial areas seems to be in the area of sort of two to sort of 5%, maybe up to about 10%. But at smaller scales, that number varies a lot more between basically areas where we have no major disease and wombats in areas where we can have you know, 40%
Laura Corrigan 8:41 this is the official government stance on mange. It's an awful affliction and animal welfare issue, but not an extinction threat. Main has been here for a long time, as long as Europeans, and there are still one that's around.
Amanda Cox 8:55 Unfortunately, we don't really and I mean, we right across the world, we don't tend to worry too much until something's brought to the brink of extinction. And that's the point at which attention gets paid.
Laura Corrigan 9:09 That's Amanda Cox. She's from the Wombat Protection Society of Australia, an organization that cares for wombats and the people who care for them. The charity provides Melina with her license to treat wombats Amanda, inventor of the burro flap founded the wombat Protection Society 30 years ago.
Amanda Cox 9:27 We began by contacting anybody and everybody who's ever had anything to do with wombats and talking about this issue with mange trying to find out what they were doing, what worked, what hadn't worked. And we now also have researchers who were doing that in a more you know, scientific method then there now way back then which was literally to pick up a phone connected to a curly cord and speak to people.
Laura Corrigan 9:57 Amanda has raised orphan wombats Joey whose moms were hit by cars or died of mange.
Amanda Cox 10:03 You don't raise them to keep them as pets, you raise them to release them. And you spend two years looking after this little thing for a little pinky toe you know someone who's playful and happy to someone who you now feel very proud when it loons in inverted commas to dig a burrow, and you've got to let it go. You've got to also then go, I want an environment out there where you're safe, and I don't want to see or hear. A year later, you've turned into this horrendously concretized fly blown mess,
Laura Corrigan 10:38 Wombats are not classified as threatened species. In the ACT there is a government funded program targeting means administered through wildlife groups and volunteers. But in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, those groups do it with limited government support. In order to treat a wombat in New South Wales, you need a license. Like I said Melina has a federal license through the wombat Protection Society. You also need to be a wildlife carer. It's a lot of red tape for volunteers. And we've 15 weeks of weekly treatment across hundreds of sites, people power is essential.
Molina has 28 active volunteers treat through her license, she trains them, and if anything goes wrong, she's held responsible. Amanda says it's easy to kill a wombat in Australia, then save it.
Amanda Cox 11:29 Most of them, do it out of their own pocket, very few of them get anywhere near reimburse their costs, etc. We're asking people to do so much and then putting on top of them. Regulations that just don't make sense. It is much easier to go and get a permit if you don't want one that's on your land to shoot them than it is to be able to treat them. And that's appalling. And that's across Australia. And that's disgusting. And I think a whole lot of members of the public really do not know and we should be able to do better and we can.
Laura Corrigan 12:07 So why doesn't the government pay more attention to the plight of mangy wombats? Well, Amanda says part of the problem is that wombats aren't that popular
Amanda Cox 12:16 In some parts of Australia there were bounties put on wombats farmers were actually asked to get rid of them. So this horrible parasitic disease lots and lots of farmers saw it is very positive. They went chewed a healthy wombat but leave one with mange because it's going to kill off other wombats. So we were also battling with a little bit of historical negativity towards one that's
John Allen 12:55 this is an example of an extensive one that Vairo that has collapsed. And it's reason why you find a lot of foreigners don't like wander it's because it does cause quite extensive damage. And this is a good example of it.
Laura Corrigan 13:10 Back on the Allen's property in megalong Valley, John Allen shows me a collapse barrel system near a creek. A whole chunk of a hillside is missing. There's a depression of about three meters by two, one and a half meters deep,
John Allen 13:22 but you can see under here, the whole wombat hollow was covered. They came in and then the whole thing just collapsed in heavy rain like we've had now. It's not too bad here because it doesn't impact the cattle. But if you're out in the paddock
Laura Corrigan 13:40 Melina is quick to point out that wombats are good for the soil,
Melina Budden 13:43 wombats and Lyrebirds. And echidnas and bandicoots are the kind of essential animals to an ecosystem because without those animals to help turn the soil and oxygenate the soil and help with the nutrient cycle then ecosystems start to die off
Laura Corrigan 13:57 the burrow systems don't threaten the cattle too much here near the creek. But if a wombat starts digging too close to the Allens, vines or prime paddock, they'll fill in the hole forcing them away. But when John and wife Jill notice the wombats was sick, they were anxious to do something about it.
John Allen 14:16 We've been conscious of increased mange for some three or four years since the drought. It's a serious issue. We would have probably 60 borrows on the place. And I suppose it'd be upwards of 31 beds here. So it's quite a colony. And we could see the whole colony starting to decline, and we needed to do something about
Jill Allen 14:46 I got such a shock one morning because he'd been around for a while. And then I looked at one side of him and I noticed it was absolutely red roar and I said to my husband, he's been savaged by something that approx or something's got him and he's got through that. And then I spoke to Molina and she said, No, no, no, that's what the mange does. They their skin just, it just falls off. And that's what had happened to this one. But I think because we managed to get the automated onto onto that point, and I think it's survived because we haven't seen it. And if it had died, I imagine it would have died around here. And we would have seen it
Laura Corrigan 15:21 Jill Allen says, the one that seemed to be getting better thanks to the work of the volunteers.
Jill Allen 15:26 We've been involved for a very short time. And just in the last couple of weeks, we haven't seen any sequence. So hopefully, that's a good sign. Because if we're getting high numbers of sequence, we'd be seeing more of them. My husband and I go down and check the flaps to say whether they bought and mostly they've all been disturbed. So I'd say we're getting a fairly high dosage read out there, which is good.
Laura Corrigan 15:51 Jill says she's happy to share her home with the wombats.
Jill Allen 15:56 I know further west, a lot of farmers when I was growing up had this field wombats thing bulldozers with a bush and weren't very happy about them. But we find you can coexist very easily because they tend to live in sort of riverbanks or sort of, like Tamlyn slab areas
John Allen 16:13 on our place In the last few weeks, I've probably seen about 250 kangaroos, three different varieties, wallabies, Eastern grey, and the wool route, quite dramatic scene to kidness St. Three go enters a number of black snakes. We have hiring for natural golf. And that's a joy.
Laura Corrigan 16:46 An hour or so into expedition on the property we spot one of the marsupial's at a distance the one that looks like a rock. It took John's trained eye to see it go round. I'm pretty excited. It's the first time I've seen a wombat in the wild. But when they're out in the daylight like this, it's because they're sick.
Haley Stannard 17:13 There's two schools of thought around them coming out in the daytime to eat. It's either due to increased energy demands. So if you're sick and you're not well, your body is fighting off an infection, which is what's happening with the wombats and that they need more energy. So they're coming out and they're eating more in the daytime. But the second school of thought around that is when sarcoptic mange starts to get really bad, their eyes get very encrusted and they can't see as well so that they're coming out during the daytime because they can't see very well at nighttime when it's easier for them to find food.
Laura Corrigan 17:47 That's Dr. Haley Stannard, a zoologist at Charles Sturt University. There are a few theories as to why wombats are particularly susceptible to mange why it kills them 100% of the time if left untreated, Haley says it could be because it's an introduced parasite and wombats haven't built a resistance to it. But it's also unclear why some local populations are hit harder than others.
Haley Stannard 18:11 One of our study populations in the wolgan valley we believe that that population has quite a low genetic diversity. And that may make that population more susceptible because they have up to 40% range, but in other populations that we've studied, they have lower rates.
Laura Corrigan 18:27 Dr. Scott Carver who we heard from earlier says the wombats underground home could play a role
Scott Carver 18:33 and wombats like to move house quite frequently. So better every four to 10 days a wombat will shift from its burrow that it's living in and move into a new one nearby. And so we think that this sort of mites get shed from one Mets into these burrows, and then another one that coming in can pick it up that way. And so we've recently been trying to do some research to understand just how long we think these mites can survive in these burrows.
Laura Corrigan 18:59 Haley's research suggested cooler temperatures can make it more prevalent. Haley Stannard 19:03 We, in our studies didn't find a direct link to a particular season, but we did find a link with rainfall. Because in times where there's higher rainfall, it's very damp, and it's much cooler. It's much more easier for the mites to survive off the wombats for longer. So they'll hang out on grasses or around the entrance of a burrow, for example, and when another one that comes past they can jump on them.
Laura Corrigan 19:27 Scott's research suggested an overpopulation of wombats in Toronto National Park contributed to the devastating outbreak there
Scott Carver 19:35 and we think it possibly hit sort of a tipping point where the sort of abundance of wombats became so high that it may be sort of maximize the number of wombats that could use the available borrows and that this sort of resulted in increasing transmission of the might among womit because there was possibly more sharing of borrows going on had time.
Laura Corrigan 20:04 The one that we spot looks scruffy. Melina tries to sneak up on it to administer a dose using a Poland scoop. It's attempt Paul with a spray can lead duct tape to the end of it. We'll see how we can still here as you can see, but this one bad isn't too far gone. It's turned our way round eyes on us. It's scurries down a nearby borrow. As we drive to another property, Melina tells me about the first time she saw a wombat sick with mange when she was in the Blue Mountains helping wildlife after the fires.
Melina Budden 20:42 I didn't know what to do, but a particularly sick one back down there in the valley that he was either gonna get hit by a car or die from starvation. So I ended up picking up a 40 kilo wombat from Morgan Valley on a Sunday afternoon and I drove it 350 kilometers Taronga Zoo not many people would do that. But I was that devastated and I just I would say after seeing so many animals dying even the animals we bought him with burns half and died. I was like not not these animals are dying on my watch. So I took him into Turanga but unfortunately he ended up dying and care.
Laura Corrigan 21:14 Molina says means is a big threat to wombats as a species.
Melina Budden 21:19 Now northern hairy nosed wombats are critically endangered, there is only one population left if Maine gets into them it will annihilate them and destroy the entire population which means the extinction of the northern area knows more about common wombats are now no longer cool common one that's for a reason they're now called the banjos wombat because they're no longer as common as they used to be. They're no longer the point of a threat, but if things continue, they will become threat.
Laura Corrigan 21:41 She says it's an accumulation of problems that's threatening the one bats and making the impact of mange. Worse,
Melina Budden 21:48 all of these environmental stressors on their own won't take out of species not. But you've got to start looking what's going on with major habitat fragmentation, habitat destruction, farmers are given freely given licenses to shoot wombats. And then you got things like major droughts, fires, and then mange on top of that mind just getting affecting more but worse these days because of the accumulative impacts over time.
Laura Corrigan 22:14 Great kettle boiling Molina takes me over the other side of the Blue Mountains to come nimbler where I meet Anna Culliton. A wise carer who treats wombats for mange in New South Wales is central west.
Anna Culliton 22:26 I was actually out and about trading limits. When I got the call, saying, there's a one bed here but I'm going to get someone to come and shoot it. And I said, Just wait for me to come and then we'll make the decision. Anyway, put a wheelie bin down in front of him and he just went straight in. And he was really smelly with infection. He certainly couldn't hear or smell me he had no desire to move away from me.
Laura Corrigan 23:01 Usually wombats don't fare well in captivity. That's why they're treated in the wild using the borrow flaps or pollen scoops. But Anna successfully treated maki at home.
Anna Culliton 23:11 There's already an established borrow in that enclosure and he went down at so I kind of had a terrible feeling that he'd just curl up and die. But he didn't. He came out he became my friend. He never tried to get out until he was pretty much healed. He was just really a little bit skinny. Anyway, I laid him out, thinking that the only way he was going to get big and strong was to be a real one bit. And then three months later, he came back with mange. But he was a bit fatter. And I just treated him in the open. I didn't try and contain him at all
Laura Corrigan 24:00 Anna says the problem is really bad in the region she covers from here to Bathurst and even as far out as Mudgee.
Anna Culliton 24:08 It's a critical problem. It's so bad. It's insane. I think that there's these wombat populations that are just pretty much being wiped out by mange. And lots of people say to me, Oh, we have wombats but there's no mange. I don't believe that. I don't think there's any wombat population that's free of mange.
Laura Corrigan 24:34 I was told that wombats is solitary animals and that their anti social behavior means they don't readily pass me, John. But Molina and Anna have observed otherwise.
Anna Culliton 24:45 So there's one particular burrow that I'm trading and there's six different wombats that live in that burrow. Now the one bet that's really sick never gets the dose and the one bet that always comes out first got better real fast. And so to have a camera there is so important so I know exactly what's going on and we say that it's a 12 week process of the borrow flaps. I've had a flap on that borrowed for 25 weeks and I'm in no hurry to take it down because the wombats that are in there some of them well enough to stop the treatment.
Laura Corrigan 25:29 Why is is better funded and more well known the Molina's wombat warriors. But still Anna says there's not a lot of financial support
Anna Culliton 25:38 WIRES, which is donations. They pay for the sidectin which is the chemical we use. I'm basically a full time volunteer. So I'm not I'm not funded. My kilometers aren't funded, but I do get donations for batteries for cameras and SD cards and there's so much more to it than just the medication. There's no funding. There's nothing to be able to like start a program and see it. Go right through. Nobody's covering the costs.
Laura Corrigan 26:23 Molina's group, the Blue Mountains, wildlife volunteers rely on crowdfunding and donations, and it says the government should be doing more to help eradicate mange.
Anna Culliton 26:33 I think we just need to tell everyone that they have to lobby to government bodies to eradicate major it has to be eradicated. So that's going to be funding to veterinary scientists, the research has to come up with with something that's a quick fix. Because at the moment, you know, months and months and months to treat a wombat that can then ruin this stated. It's gotta be like the, the little Tassie devils with their facial tumors, that it was so scary that, you know, everyone thought we were gonna lose them. And they've done it because they got the funding. And now we need to do the same for the wombats.
Laura Corrigan 27:25 Amanda Cox from wombat protection says one of the things holding the movement back is that there's no unified treatment program for the marsupial's. There's also still so much we don't know about one bats themselves. People can't agree on whether they're social or solitary, why they're particularly vulnerable to mange or even if they're in danger of dying out or a pest terrorizing farmers. The wildlife charities I spoke to want to see more support to treat mange and wombats but until then, volunteers will keep at it. Like Melina who travels three and a half hours every week to top up their borrow flaps. All zoology students, Sarah Williams from Katoomba go through the guy who was with us in megalong Valley, even though the smell of moxidectin makes her feel sick, and I can understand why they're adorable creatures. Anna had two juvenile wombats living with her when I visited candy and Ernie Anna has a purpose built enclosure on her property, a pool sized area with cast iron fencing that goes deep into the ground inside it and a knocks near the entrance of a borough. After some time a wombat Shaylee pokes out. She sees it's Anna and perks up becoming friendly and playful. She's bigger than Anna's Lakeland Terrier, but still has the big eyes and soft features of a baby. Candy let me pat her.
Tom Melville 29:11 That's candy, the wombat there sniffing at Lauer's microphone. If you'd like to donate or get involved, we've included some links in our show notes. That's it for this episode of voice of real Australia. Thank you so much for listening. Subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen, and I'll be back in a couple of weeks. If you like the podcast, please tell your friends give us a five star rating on Apple podcasts. It really does help. If you'd like to share your story. You can email voice at asked community media.com.au That's voice at Aust, a ust community media.com.au our Facebook pages facebook.com/voice of real Australia. You can follow me on Twitter at Tom Melville 124. Voice of real Australia is recorded in the studios of the Newcastle Herald on a Awabakal land and in Canberra Ngunnawal and Ngambri land. It's produced by Lara Corrigan and me your host Tom Melville. This is an ACM podcast
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.