Image Source: https://www.abc.net.au/
They may look nothing like a Tasmanian tiger, but the northern hairy-nosed wombat very nearly shared something in common — extinction.
They are classified as critically endangered, and the population of Australia’s largest wombat species dipped to as low as 35 in the early 1980s.
Fifty years ago, their remaining populated habitat was gazetted as Epping Forest National Park, north of Clermont in central Queensland.
Since then, and with the help of predator fencing, habitat management, and trial and error in learning about the species’ needs, the population has grown to more than 300.
“We basically say we’re farming wombats,” said Alan Horsup, senior conservation officer from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS).
Three decades of dedication
Not only is this year the 50th anniversary of the Epping Forest National Park becoming a dedicated wombat habitat, it is Dr Horsup’s 30th year working with the wombats through the QPWS.
“I think I’m very lucky, I have a fantastic job,” he said.
As its wombat population manager, he spends about a week per month working in the national park monitoring the burrowing animals, maintaining infrastructure, equipment, and occasionally trapping them.
In recent years he has started gathering hairs from the wombats for genetic testing by putting double-sided sticky tape at the burrow’s entrance.
“I used to see them at night. So they’re a very, very difficult animal to study, and they’re very secretive.”
There is now a lot more help for Dr Horsup working with the threatened species, with dedicated volunteers stationed at the park to work as caretakers and two more conservation officers focused heavily on wombats.
Improvement of technology
While research and knowledge of the elusive creatures has improved, the introduction of technology is what gave a never-before-seen insight into their hidden lives.
“When remote cameras and infrared cameras arrived — that can be left in the field and detect movement — that made such a difference,” Dr Horsup said.
Despite spending up to 18 hours in their burrows, the cameras helped Dr Horsup learn how long wombats carry their young in their pouch, along with their early life behaviour.
Not only are they using cameras to monitor behaviour, but Dr Horsup said they use it for feedback on their own work and how wombats respond to things they do in the park.
“It’s like having several other hands, and the technology has gotten better,” he said.
“It’s like another person, another member of the team who can help you, basically.”
Not out of the woods
It has not been easy sailing, despite seeing numbers now rise to above 300.
“Back in the 90s things were not good. We had a population that was not growing. We had a dingo predation event when we lost up to 20 wombats. We had the sex ratio go towards males,” Dr Horsup said.
The project made a huge leap forward when in 2009 a second colony of northern hairy-nosed wombats was established at Richard Underwood Nature Refuge near St George in southern Queensland.
But 95 per cent of the population is still at home in Epping Forest National Park, which puts the species at risk of being decimated by disease or natural disaster.
“So there’s a real urgency to get the next populations established. That’s the next goal,” Dr Horsup said.
Even after three decades working with the northern hairy-nosed wombat, Dr Horsup is not ready to hang up his hat just yet.
“I’m just about near retirement age but I reckon I can hang out for another two or three years, or whatever it takes, and then I’ll happily pass over to someone a bit younger.
“Someone with better knees and hips than me.”