Wombats: Australia’s most endangered marsupial
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Wombats: Australia’s most endangered marsupial

Back in January I posted about the plight of the wombat, perhaps mainland Australia’s 3rd most iconic marsupial, albeit significantly behind the kangaroo and the koala. Powerful vegetarian diggers, wombats have back-facing pouches and are surprisingly fast runners.

Though common wombats have relatively healthy populations in the coastal regions of southeast Australia, the northern hairy-nosed wombat is a critically endangered species, numbering only 200. Though the species once enjoyed a wide range across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland states, most of them now inhabit an area of only 3 square kilometres in Queensland’s Epping National Forest Park.

It was cattle farming that spelled doom for the northern hairy-nose wombat, with cows steadily outcompeting the stocky marsupials for grass over the last 300 years. In the 80s there were in fact only 35 hairy noses left so they’ve already made a significant recovery since. Still, they’ll need to do quite a bit better than that to achieve healthy population numbers.

One tactic is “re-wilding”, which means breeding the wombats and then introducing them back into their ancestral habitats. A similar method is part of the plan to save the threatened Tasmanian devil, which is being wiped out by a contagious mouth cancer.

From the Guardian:

Although re-wilding has been in existence for a few decades it is only recently that conservationists have started to take it more seriously. Part of its growing acceptance is due to conservationists realising that the survival of species depends intrinsically on the survival of ecosystems, while those same ecosystems and species are under unprecedented pressure from climate change and habitat destruction.

Local conservationists are even digging burrows for the wombats in order to insure a healthy transition to their new habitats. This is not as silly as it sounds, as wombats need to spend plenty of time underground and wombat burrows are surprisingly vast. So huge that other species are known to live inside them at the same time as the wombats. Spiny anteaters (echidnas), kangaroos, wallabies, birds, pythons and giant monitor lizards (goannas) are all known for squatting in the burrows.

From the Courier-Mail:

While it may seem unusual for two or more species to inhabit the one space, northern hairy-nose wombats dig extremely long tunnels with multiple entrances. Scientists had recorded one burrow with five entrances and more than 90m of tunnel – almost as long as a rugby league field.

It sounds like wombats help support several other members of their local ecosystem. I wonder what impact their extinction would have on these other species that benefit from wombat burrows?

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Rescued baby wombat. Since, rewilded. Pic: Will Keightley (Flickr CC)

Another major threat to the northern hairy nose and wombats in general are non-native species such as domestic dogs. Hunting dogs in particular see the docile wombats as easy prey.

From the Newcastle Herald:

I’m never going to call another wombat Lucky again. We’re getting so many people up here, especially hunters from the Game Council and they’re just letting their dogs run wild out here. They just rip them up, take their ears off and roll them over like it’s a game.

–Roz Holme, Cedar Creek Wombat Rescue, New South Wales

Not content to just destroy game animals, hunters like to set their dogs on vulnerable wombats too. They’ve been known to do the same thing to koalas, kangaroos… you get the picture.