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5 February 2007

Wombats


PATRICK EMMETT: This might look like a scene from Mad Max but, in reality, it is the front line in the battle to protect the health and the future of the southern hairy-nosed wombat. Although when Dr David Taggart and his team make a house call, their patients aren't always pleased to see them. They start at nightfall and work till the early hours of the morning, scouring the bush near Swan Reach on the Murray looking for their unwilling patients. It's cold and often frustrating work. Eventually they resort to a .22 not to shoot the creature but to miss it. The noise stuns the wombat and the scientists swoop.

MALE: I see its fur looks a bit sort of frizzy.

FEMALE: Scruffy, yeah.

PATRICK EMMETT: After being captured the wombats are taken back to home base to be measured and micro chipped the next day.

MALE: His length is 93.

PATRICK EMMETT: But this time there's something far more serious that researchers are looking for. Last year they were contacted by local farmers who noticed animals were losing their fur and dying. David Lebrun runs Eco Tours on his property Sunnydale and has been one of the hardest hit.

DAVID LEBRUN: It's probably killed around 80 on our property. We reckon we've got below 20 healthy wombats on the place at the moment.

PATRICK EMMETT: Shocked researchers discovered they were suffering from mange. That's caused by mites which burrow into the skin causing inflammation which leads to organ failure and a horrible death.

DAVID TAGGART: We've found animals wandering around the paddock, just a bag of bones, totally covered in scabs, hardly a hair on their body. The animals were in absolutely shocking condition. And these scabs crack and then they weep fluid and pus, and the animals, well it just must be absolutely, you know, absolutely excruciating the pain and torment they must go through before they finally die.

PATRICK EMMETT: That must be very upsetting.

DAVID TAGGART: It is really upsetting, yeah.

PATRICK EMMETT: After the Nullabor the Murraylands is the state's second biggest population of the southern hairy-nosed. The exact numbers are a mystery but there's certainly thousands spread across the area. Until 13 years ago little was known about the state's official emblem, until David Taggart and some fellow scientists began their nightly hunts.

DAVID TAGGART: We've learnt a hell of a lot over 13 years. We've only been looking at the mange just the last couple of years but when we started there was no published information on things like growth curves for the young so you couldn't age the young.

PATRICK EMMETT: While mange has been found in common wombats on the east coast, it's rarely been reported in the southern hairy-nosed. And what worries researchers is that the southern hairy-nosed has a much more precarious existence than its common cousin. It lives in semi-arid areas and its numbers are greatly affected by drought, sometimes dropping by more than 50 per cent. Females only breed every two years and then just one baby. Often they stop in dry spells. So when researchers found fertile females are the main victims they became even more concerned.

LAURA RUYKYS, ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY: Absolutely. It not only kills the females themselves but it also throws the sex ratio. So normally it's a one to one male to female balance in the wombat population. If you have significantly fewer females then it throws that out, and we don't even know for how long that effect is going to last: it might be for three years, it might be for 10, it depends.

PATRICK EMMETT: While they expect the populations in the Murraylands and on the Nullabor are big enough to survive mange, what worries them is small groups of wombats found in other parts of the state. And they have recently heard of an outbreak on Yorke Peninsula.

LAURA RUYKYS: Those populations there are really fragmented and if mange wipes out 50 to 80 per cent of the population then you don't have a very strong population really to continue that on.

PATRICK EMMETT: It's thought the mite is caught from foxes. As part of their study the group is seeing if injections with an anti parasite drug will provide long-term protection. Some like this one are taken to the Adelaide Zoo for treatment and then released. The good news is that on Stateline's visit none of the wombats found were suffering from the disease and there was also this welcome surprise.

MALE: And there she goes.

PATRICK EMMETT: A seven year old, last caught by the team two years ago, is carrying an eight month old baby.

MALE: Yeah no, he looks in good nick alright.

PATRICK EMMETT: After being checked the young male is returned to the pouch where it will remain for another two months. Researchers only hope it will have a long life.

DAVID TAGGART: We've really developed an appreciation for how tough these animals are. And to see them succumbing to these little mites it just breaks your heart after what you know they've been through, just to survive in an area like this.

PATRICK EMMETT: And while baby 9223555 is returned home with his mother, perhaps it's fitting that the last word in this story comes from the man at the wheel. Ron Dibben is a former shooter. He now spends all of his time helping the team in their quest

RON DIBBEN: I realise what we're losing in this world and what our children are not going to have when they grow up. That's the main thing. And the condition of the world: we need every living thing in it, for sure, because every living thing in this world has a place and a job to do.