By Joey Clarke, Senior Science Communicator
Considering the gloomy state of the world in 2021, burrowing into the ground might seem like an appealing option. After all, for animals as diverse as pardalotes and polar bears, burrows provide a safe refuge from external threats, a stable environment where they can raise their families, and a base from which to make forays into the wider world. Australia’s largest burrowing animal is called Yaminon, the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), and it needs all the safe refuge it can get. The wild population of this critically endangered species numbers about 315 individuals. Australian Wildlife Conservancy will be joining the efforts of Queensland Department of Environment and Science (DES) to help save this remarkable burrowing marsupial.
Australia has three species of wombat: the Common Wombat or Bare-nosed Wombat (Vombatus ursinus) which is the familiar species found throughout the Granite Belt in southern Queensland, eastern NSW, Victoria and Tasmania; the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons), the smallest species, found in semi-arid country from the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia and patchily through southern South Australia (including at AWC’s Yookamurra and Dakalanta Wildlife Sanctuaries); and the rare Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat. At the time of European colonisation, the northern species was recorded in the Brigalow Belt of central and southern Queensland, from near Clermont to around St George, with a separate population in the NSW Riverina.
Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats have a distinctive appearance with a broad nose, pointy ears, soft greyish fur and faint black eye patches a bit like a panda. A metre long and weighing up to 30 kilograms, they are serious earthmovers: one mapped burrow system included over 90 metres of tunnel and six entrances. They can live to at least 30 years, spending most of their time underground and emerging at night to feed on grasses and sedges. The only recorded Indigenous name for the wombat is ‘Yaminon,’ a word originating in the district around St George in southern Queensland.
The species has not fared well over the past 200 years. Early pastoralists cleared vast tracts of their preferred open eucalypt woodland habitat for grazing, and the wombats also faced competition with livestock and rabbits, as well as direct persecution – in 1884, more than a thousand were shot on a single property. By the 1980s just one population clung to survival in an island of remnant bush at Epping Forest National Park. When numbers dropped to just 35 individuals, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service intervened, and a dedicated program to protect the Epping Forest wombats has been in place ever since. The population has steadily recovered, aided by a 20-kilometre fence excluding Dingoes and wild dogs from the park, constructed by DES in 2002.
In 2009 a second colony was established at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge near the town of St George in southern Queensland in a bid to reduce the risk of fire, flood and/or disease from wiping out the last remaining population. Covering 130 hectares, the refuge is leased by the Queensland Government from private landholders and is currently managed through a volunteer program. It is surrounded by a fence which excludes Dingoes and wild dogs and deters foxes and cats. Successful breeding over the past few years means there are now 15 wombats at the site. The Queensland Government, AWC Chief Executive, Tim Allard, and Chief Scientist, Dr John Kanowski, visited the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge in May this year.
Now the Queensland Government has invited AWC to join the Recovery Team and to partner to help conserve the species by working on conservation efforts at the established population sites and helping to scope out further sites for reintroduction. With the involvement of AWC expertise, the Queensland Government hopes to establish a population at a third site in coming years. To secure the long-term future of the species, AWC is also exploring opportunities to create a further suitable site for the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat in NSW or Queensland.
Partnering to help manage one of Australia’s most highly threatened species is a unique privilege. AWC is proud to be involved and to work alongside DES on this critical conservation project to save the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat from extinction.
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