Last week I saw my first wombat in the wild.
It was in the Megalong Valley, deep in the Blue Mountains, about two hours from Sydney.
It was a gloomy day. The threat of rain was heavy in the air. Thick fog draped down the sandstone escarpments overlooking the valley. Someone told me that it's called a phantom waterfall.
I was on a cattle property at the creek line gully the landowners called Wombat Hollow. It was the middle of the day. Wombats are nocturnal so if they're out during the day it's because they're sick with mange.
On this week's episode of the Voice of Real Australia podcast we meet the volunteers trying to save wombats from the slow and certain death caused by mange.
Mange is a parasitic infestation, tiny mites that burrow into the wombat's flesh. The marsupials scratch themselves raw. Their skin turns to concrete, with weeping cracks. They become flyblown. They lose their sight and hearing. It's not the parasites that kill them, they die of secondary infections, starvation, or from wandering blindly onto the road.
It's an awful thing to see a creature suffering like that.
The first time ecologist Melina Budden saw a wombat with mange she was "devastated".
"So I ended up picking up a 40 kilo wombat and I drove it 150km to Taronga Zoo. Not many people would do that," Melina said.
Now she's taken it upon herself to help the wombats. Every week she travels the 3.5 hours from Lake Macquarie in the NSW's Hunter region to Megalong Valley in the Blue Mountains to ensure the wombats here get their doses of the medication Moxidectin.
"I think once you see the pain that these animals are in, and when you see that the government's doing nothing, you just step up."
To administer the medication Melina sets up a burrow flap in front of the wombats' homes. They're pieces of corflute "for sale" signs donated by the local Century 21, with a Vegemite lid fixed into it. The Moxidectin is poured into the lid. When a wombat goes in or out of the burrow the medication gets poured down its back.
But for the one we've spotted in Wombat Hollow, Melina prepares a direct method. She uses a tentpole with a spray can lid duct taped to it, filled with Moxidectin. She sneaks up behind the wombat pole outstretched. But this wombat was recovering, or not too far gone. It could hear and see us. It scurried into a nearby burrow.
Melina and other wildlife volunteers in New South Wales and across the eastern seaboard are giving up their time to treat wombats for mange, relying on donations and their own pockets to fund it.
The government doesn't consider wombats a threatened species, and mange is treated as an animal welfare issue not a conservation one. Mange has been around for two centuries and wombats have not died out yet. But the mites have devastated local populations. In Narawntapu National Park on Tasmania's north coast the wombat population was reduced by 94 percent after an outbreak of mange.
Wildlife volunteers want more support. They want the government to commit to eradicating mange.
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