Humans the worst enemy

Although all these natural conditions that expose the wombat to risk of injury may be harmful to individual animals, they have never eliminated the species from any large area. Only the actions of people over the last 200 years have managed to do this. Since the first days of European settlement, wombats and humans have come into conflict. Wherever land was cleared, wombats were killed, usually by poisoning or shooting. However, it was not until the introduced rabbit spread across the land, forcing landholders to erect wire-netting fences, that the wombat became thought of, and treated as, a pest to be eradicated ruthlessly. In Victoria, for instance, the bare-nosed wombat was gazetted as vermin in 1906, and in 1925 a bounty system was introduced. Under the system, trappers employed by local councils and subsidised by the government were paid a bounty of 10 shillings ($1) on each wombat scalp they collected. Wombats were trapped, and poisoned and shot, in enormous numbers. During the last 16 years in which the system was in operation, 64 000 wombats were destroyed by bounty hunters. They were killed not only on and near farm land but also deep in the forests where they were doing no possible harm to anyone.

Trapping was the usual method used to collect the ears and scalp for which the bounty was paid. Heavy steel traps had strong metal jaws which, when the trap was triggered, snapped around the animal's foot or leg and held it tightly. These traps, lightly buried in the entrances of wombat burrows and on their trails, held the wombat until the trapper returned to check his traps, which was often a week or more later. Meanwhile the wombat, its leg broken by the trap, had probably died after enduring days of pain, exposed to the daily extremes of heat and cold and at the mercy of possible attack by predators.

The bounty system remained in force in Victoria until 1966; but even when it was removed, wombats were still classified as vermin under the Wildlife Act so that, by law, it was obligatory for landholders to destroy any wombats on their property. Fortunately, many farmers were tolerant of the wombat - so long as they didn't lose any money on its account - and as the law was not strictly enforced, wombats still inhabit many areas on and near private land.

In 1977 the wombat was declared 'protected wildlife' in western Victoria, with the threat of severe penalties for scalp hunters, but it was still classified as vermin east of the Melbourne to Albury railway line. As by that time there were very few wombats left in western Victoria, this legislation was almost redundant.

The Victorian Wildlife Act was altered again in 1984 when at last the shameful law that proclaimed one of Australia's unique native animals as vermin was repealed. Instead, the wombat was declared 'protected wildlife' in most of Victoria. Due to considerable pressure from some farmers' groups, it was simultaneously declared to be 'unprotected wildlife' in certain specific areas - a total of 193 parishes - in eastern Victoria, where wombats were said to be causing problems to landholders (Figure 7.2). In these parishes landholders may take or destroy wombats 'by the use of fumigants, traps or firearms only on freehold or leasehold property or on Crown land within one kilometre of such property', except where the Crown land is also part of a national park, where wombats are fully protected. In the rest of Victoria, and in the whole of New South Wales and Tasmania, where wombats have been protected since 1974 and 1971 respectively, landholders can apply to the wildlife authorities for licences to allow them to reduce wombat numbers by killing some where they are causing damage and their destruction is necessary to relieve the situation.

A similar situation occurs in South Australia, where massive land clearing for agriculture and the damage and competition caused by large rabbit numbers have caused a decline in the populations of southern hairy-nosed wombats. The total population was estimated to be about 330 000 animals in the late 1990s. Only about half of the areas they occupy are in reserves, such as National Parks and other conservation areas. A plan of

Figure 7.2 Wombats and their burrows can be a problem to farmers. Photo: d Fanning

management, compiled by Barbara St John and Glen Saunders in 1989 and implemented by the Department of Environment and Heritage, monitors the populations on private land as well as on the reserves.

While all these wombats are now protected by law, permits are still issued to landholders who can show that the burrowing and grazing habits of wombats are affecting their livelihood. Every year since 1987 approximately 1000 southern hairy-nosed wombats have been destroyed under this permit system.

Human impact on the northern hairy-nosed wombats has been catastrophic. It was probably never a common species, but the decline over the last 200 years has brought this wombat to the point where it is critically endangered. Overgrazing by cattle and sheep, in combination with drought and predation by dingoes are the main factors causing this decline.

A recovery plan for the northern hairy-nosed wombat, prepared by Alan Horsup and his team, aims to encourage the wombats to reoccupy more of Epping Forest and increase their numbers there, and recently there have been encouraging results. Recent remote censusing in the Epping

Forest colony shows that there has been an increase in numbers, from about 115 to 138, only 28 of which had ever been trapped. This indicates that there are now a large number of young wombats in the population, which is most encouraging news.

There is also a significant difference in the sex ratio - females were outnumbered 2.5:1 by males in the mid 1990s when the population contained only 65 individuals but hair censusing now indicates the sex ratio is nearly even.

The wombats are now found in about one-fifth of the 3300 hectare park, a major expansion of 100% in the last two to three years. It is thought that the dingo fence has been the major factor in these increases, not only lowering predation but, because females tend to disperse when they are mature it is probable that they were being lost to the population by leaving the park in search of new habitat, which, of course, they never found, and consequently that they perished. The dingo fence now prevents them from leaving the park.

Plans are being made to translocate a small number of northern hairy-nosed wombats to another location in 2009. A two year search for a new site was carried out, across central and southern Queensland, and a property near St George, 600 kilometres to the south has been selected for its suitability for these wombats. A second breeding colony will help to protect the species from possible extinction which could be caused by a single severe event such as disease or fire.

Climate change is also a looming danger to all wombats. Any increase in the frequency of drought will have a devastating effect on their ability to breed and the likely increase in wildfires will pose a danger to all wombats.

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