My early days as a wildlife ecologist were spent driving around spotlighting on the back of a ute in the Murraylands of South Australia, chasing down Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats to learn what we could about this iconic Australian species. For me it was a life-shaping experience.
I ended up working with wombats for about four years, including a research project investigating the effectiveness of a capture technique referred to as ‘stunning’, an honours project on the ranging behaviour, activity patterns and burrow use, and a couple of years working as a research assistant with the main focus on developing a better understanding of the reproductive output of wombats with the hope that techniques could be applied to the critically endangered cousin of Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats - the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.
For those of you out there that don’t know, Australia is home to three species of wombat; the two with hairy noses and the Bare-nosed Wombat (formerly known as the Common Wombat). All three species are significant ‘ecosystem engineers’, meaning that through their digging and burrowing lifestyle they provide a service to the ecosystem in helping plant recruitment, providing refugia for a wide array of species. Unfortunately due to their fossorial expertise they're also seen as an agricultural pest.
The plight of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is one I follow with a keen interest. On a world scale, it is in the top 10 when it comes to endangered mammals – more endangered than a panda – yet receives far less attention than many other species, both around the world and in Australia.
When I began working on wombats, there were as few as 80 left in the wild and it was confined to a single population in central Queensland at Epping National Park. This meant that it was just one catastrophe away from being added to the already long list of Australian mammals that have gone extinct in the last 200 years.
At the time, efforts to conserve the species were limited, but research was focussed on learning more about its biology and that of its more abundant cousins further south. The impact of dingoes on the recruitment of young into the population was significant and therefore the park was fenced to remove this threat. In nearly 20 years the population has grown to around 250 and a small second population has been established in southern Queensland at Underwood Nature Reserve.
In 2015 I was lucky enough to visit Epping and see Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats in the flesh. I still remember looking through the visitors' book at the park in awe of the ‘who's who of wombat research’, with so many familiar names from the wombat research community having visited the park. I felt privileged to have seen 10 wombats in one night of dedicated spotlighting!
So, when I started working with Bush Heritage it was exciting to once again have the opportunity to work with Southern Hairy-nosed Wombats due to their persistence on Bon Bon Station Reserve in northern South Australia. It's apparent that the population on Bon Bon is doing well and there's anecdotal evidence that they are expanding their distribution in this part of the state. This may be due to a reduced competitive pressure from rabbits and sheep, but the plan is to fill a few gaps in our knowledge about the species over the next couple of years. There's still a lot to learn about it, as indeed there is about its still critically endangered northern cousin.
Recently in Adelaide I attended a conference on wombats: Wombats through Time and Space. The conference was initiated as a re-visit to a book written over 20 years ago, considered by many as ‘the wombat bible’. The conference was attended by a range of wombatophiles and encompassed a wide variety of presentations from population genetics, ecology, reproduction, human-animal conflicts and living with wombats, care and rehabilitation, updates from the field, disease, the use of satellite imagery for population census, and a few light-hearted stories about wombat research and the characters associated with these charismatic creatures. It was also an opportunity to hear about future efforts to assist with the recovery of the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat.
The future of the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat is still not secure, but there's now considerable recognition of the need to find additional sites for translocation, which is likely to require help from organisations such as ours. With clever planning, the application of insights from decades of research, and dedication from the broader wombat scientific community, there's hope that prospects for this species will continue to improve.