Help Save Wombats from the Itch

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Blue Mountains’ wombats are in dire straits as mange devastates populations – but you can help by simple recording sightings of this lovable creature.

By Julie Miller

With their rotund bodies, cute underbite and backwards-facing pouches, Bare-nosed wombats are one of Australia’s most beloved marsupials. But although officially listed as having “no known threats”, wombat populations are in serious decline across Australia as they fall victim to a terrible, fatal disease – mange.

Carried into Australia by foxes brought over by early settlers, mange – caused by the sarcoptes scabiei mite – affects many species, including humans (resulting in scabies). But with the mites thriving in soil, wombats are especially susceptible - and for them, the disease can be fatal.

“The reason it affects wombats so badly is that they have an allergic reaction to it,” explains Melinda Kerr from Kanimbla Wombats, a wildlife rescue group based in the Kanimbla Valley west of Blackheath. “The mites lay eggs, and this causes an allergic reaction, which results in plaquing and secondary infection. It slowly eats away at them, affecting their metabolism until they eventually die.”

The first sign that a wombat may be suffering from mange is seeing it out and about in broad daylight. This is not normal behaviour for a nocturnal creature, and a clear indicator that it may be sick. Another sign is chunks of dry, scaly skin (known as plaquing), making it look like the wombat has been burnt. This may even spread to their eyes and ears, causing them to go blind and deaf.

The good news is, however, that mange can be treated. There are three different methods of treatment: two use the chemical moxidectin, either by direct application through a “pole and scoop” method, or by placing the chemical on a flap placed over the opening to a wombat’s burrow, with the wombat receiving a dose as it exits its home. There is also a new treatment using Bravecto - a spot-on treatment usually used to treat ticks and fleas in dogs and cats.

As you can imagine, finding sick wombats and applying the chemicals is a time-consuming job requiring patience and dedication. As well as Kanimbla Wombats - who treat mange in the Hartley and Kanimbla Valleys and across the Central West - Blue Mountains Wombat Conservation Group is a volunteer organisation helping wombats in the Megalong Valley and the Blue Mountains. Both groups welcome volunteers, who can help with applying treatments, making flaps, assessing camera trap footage and data collection.

But everyone – whether a Blue Mountains local or a visitor on a weekend getaway - can help save wombats, simply by recording any sightings.

“If you come across a wombat, take a photo of it – that’s so important to identify it is actually has mange or not,” Melinda Kerr says. “Even if you think it looks healthy, take a photo, save the GPS coordinates of where you’ve seen the wombat, and then send it to a wildlife rescue group like WIRES.”

Melinda also encourages everyone to download the WomSAT app, an initiative of the University of Western Sydney that will help document wombat numbers across the country.

You can also donate directly to Kanimbla Wombat’s important work by purchasing Melinda’s children’s book, ‘Digger Gets the Itch’, which tells the story of a baby wombat named Digger who is treated and cured of mange.

For more information or to purchase ‘Digger Gets the Itch’, visit kanimblawombats.com.au.

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