No silver bullet but progress good as wombat mange on the decline

As darkness descends, Scott Carver grabs his spotlight and goes in search of bald spots.

Loss of hair caused by sarcoptic mange – introduced to Australia by animals belonging to European settlers – is a tell-tale sign of disease in wombats.

“We have records of it on wombats dating back 100 years, so it’s been widespread in wombat populations for a long time,” Dr Carver said.

“We’re not at a stage where we can eradicate it from their populations, but we can manage it in some cases.”

Mange is a skin infection caused by parasitic mites and has impacted several native species. It can result in aggressive scratching, weight loss and, in severe cases, death.

UTAS ecologist Scot Carver
Scott Carver has been studying wombat habitation and health for a decade.(ABC News: Rhiannon Shine)

Wombats are plentiful at Bendeela Recreation Area, north-west of Nowra, and have been under evaluation for two years.

A treatment project there utilizes a hands-off approach to animal welfare – it means finding and observing nocturnal creatures that start coming out of their burrows around 4pm each day.

“I basically walk the length of the campground, counting wombats and accessing how healthy they look,” said Dr Carver, a senior lecturer in wildlife ecology at the University of Tasmania.

Using a scoring system to record the severity of each diseased animal, researchers like Dr Carver then deliver on-the-spot treatment similar to applying a tick serum on a pet.

The treatments last between 30 and 90 days and their effectiveness depends on the severity of the disease in the wombat.

A wombat with mange
Sarcoptic mange is a disease introduced from Europe.(Supplied: Scott Carver)

Tony Webber from WaterNSW, which is working on the project with the universities of Sydney and Tasmania, said he hoped the treatment would be an effective cure for what was a distressing problem for the wombat population.

Mangy wombats were now harder to spot, confirming field and study results, he said.

“It was actually less than our working estimate, probably less than 5 per cent of the population, which is less than a dozen animals of the 200 to 250 wombats that are actually at Bendeela.

“We’re administering the treatment substance to individual animals without the need to capture them.”

A mother and baby wombat on the green.
These wombats are part of the mange treatment program.(Supplied: WaterNSW)

By minimizing human interaction, the researchers reduce the stress on everybody, especially the wombat, plus they only target animals showing symptoms of mange.

“The community sees these animals, even if they are relatively small in number, suffering from this condition and it’s quite distressing for them, so to have reached this stage is certainly very good news,” Mr Webber said.


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