Wombats have been a fascination for Carol Pullar and me for many years - one could
even say an all consuming passion! We're
both specialist carers for Bare-Nosed Wombats needing rehabilitation and recuperation.
Carol conducts her rehabilitation work at her Wildlife Shelter in Victoria and
I own a Wildlife Refuge in the central west of NSW, known to many as Fourth Crossing
with wombats having a major appeal to both of us, when we heard that volunteers
were needed to conduct a Hair Census on the critically endangered Northern Hairy-Nosed
Wombat in remote central Queensland, we jumped, stomped and danced at the chance
to be involved.
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat is one of Australia's most endangered animals. In
fact, they have the dubious honour of making it to the top ten in the worlds'
most endangered animals list.
makes the wombats conservation status even more vulnerable is that there are only
115 individuals and all live in the one location - Epping Forest National Park,
which is about 120km's north west of the small township of Clermont in Queensland.
There are no Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats in captivity, nor are they found anywhere
else in the wild.
Alan Horsup and his project team from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service
have been working tirelessly with the aim to save the species from extinction.
In fact, Alan has been an integral part in the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat Recovery
Project for around 20 years and is considered a leading expert in the field. Every
now and then however, there is a need for volunteers to help with the project
- and that is where Carol and I come into this wombat story.
being accepted as volunteers to the project Carol and I decided to approach the
Australian Society for sponsorship. AusGeo had given generously to the project
in previous years and we were unsure if our request for help would be answered.
To our delight we were granted the much coveted sponsorship and our wombat story
got even better!
two years or so a Hair Census is needed to ascertain just how many wombats there
are, what their movements are over the park and most importantly, if there are
wombat joeys being born. The 2007 census had even more significance as the findings
would be the determining factor in any future translocation - moving individuals
off the park into a new location to further protect the species from decline.
Hair Census Team consisted of ten individuals - all volunteers to the project.
It was heartening to see that the plight of the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat had
reached an international audience as there were several countries in attendance;
Todd Woody from the US, Roberto Munguia from Mexico and Hilary MacDonald from
Canada. Queensland also made a great show; there was Helen Matthews and Caitlin
Palmer-Bright from Brisbane, Therese Black from the Sunshine Coast and Hazel and
Dennis Hanrahan from Hervey Bay, who were also the live-in caretakers for the
month of October. Then, of course, there was me from NSW, Carol from Victoria
and we can't forget Alan - project master extraordinaire!
adventure started in Rockhampton where the project head quarters are located.
Several of us met at the pub and spent an evening together full of excitement
and nerves as we discussed our upcoming journey to what we knew as "the middle
of nowhere". Only one of us, Helen, had been to Epping Forest before and she was
plied with all kinds of questions as to what we could expect.
the next morning we started our long trip to Epping Forest. It would take us eight
hours in a convoy of two four wheel drives to get there. At the township of Emerald
we stopped to purchase two weeks worth of food, and after a quick lunch we were
back on the road with one more stop at Clermont to buy wombat food and reaching
Epping Forest just before dusk.
an excitable dinner - we were finally here!! - we had our first briefing from
Alan, a run down on what was expected of us during the 11 day census. The work
sounded quite challenging but definitely "do-able" and it was early to bed as
we had to be up before dawn the next morning.
first day was tough. Up at 4.30am for a quick breakfast and out in the field by
5.15am. There was good reasoning for the early start - the heat! The day packed
a punch - 37 degrees Celsius in the shade but also incredibly humid as storms
hovered over us.
were buddied into teams of two and each team were given a set route through the
park, which we would then work every day during the census.
one was the most physically challenging for all of us. Armed with sets of heavy
metal stakes we walked our allocated terrain, stopping at each burrow and setting
the hair traps. Some burrows had fences built around them and these were relatively
easy to trap as we placed the double sided sticky tape (which collected the hair
for the census) on the gates which were at intervals around the fences. The burrows
without fences had to be manually staked, so each of us had to also lug around
a heavy mallet to hammer the stakes into place.
lunch time we headed back to camp and for the two hottest hours of the day we
rested under the shade of the kitchen verandah. Mid afternoon we were back at
work until dusk when we breathed a sigh of relief, pondered a good days work and
cooled off with a well earned cold beer.
a mentally and physically draining day, Alan decided to give us some time out
on day two. We took the morning to rest and to compare notes from the day before
- who had seen a wombat footprint, who had recognised wombat poo and who had the
hardest run of all! After lunch we headed out again to finish trapping the burrows.
third day was the first day of hair collecting, although it was a trial day so
we could get the hang of recognising and collecting wombat hair before the official
collection began. Much to our annoyance many of the hair samples left on the double
sided sticky tape were from the many Swamp Wallabies that also call Epping Forest
home. Wombat burrows also make a cool retreat for the wallabies during the hottest
times of the day.
It was back breaking work, especially for those of us who had come from cooler
southern climates into the full northern heat. At times in the first few days
I didn't think I'd make it to the end of the census. As the days moved on however,
working in the Queensland outback heat become more bearable. We all acclimatised,
but thankfully the temperature also fell to the milder lower 30's.
afternoon we would make our way back to camp with a back pack full of hair. We
had some friendly competitions going; who found the most Swamp Wallaby hairs;
who found the most wombat hairs (the ultimate winner of course); and who found
the most unusual sample. I believe I found that - I came across a tape that had
obviously been chewed on. I could just picture a lazy wombat lying at the entrance
of her burrow and chewing on the annoying white thing that kept ripping hair out
of her rump! That piece of tape is now one of my prized possessions!
lunch and a daily siesta during the hottest time of the day (making Roberto feel
like he was back home in Mexico) the afternoons were for lab work, where teams
of two processed the daily hair take.
member of the team would hold the sticky tape out for the other team member -
who with very good eyes carefully cut individual hairs off the tape - 180 individual
hairs a day! We had to ensure that the follicle was left in tact, as it is the
follicle that contains the precious wombat DNA.
minute piece of hair (about 2mm in length) would then be placed into a labelled
Eppendorf (tiny plastic test tube) and then boiled in water for 10 minutes. The
boiling resulted in the DNA of the wombat being infused in the fluid called Chelex
that was inside the Eppendorf - the Chelex would later be tested at Monash University
to read the DNA and to ascertain the population count.
trip wasn't all hard work. We had some great evenings full of lively chit chat
about our home towns, our hobbies, our friends and family, etc, and we listened
to music from the several MP3 players that also made the journey to Epping Forest.
The late afternoons were also "our" time and we sometimes walked through the park,
taking the cooler temperatures to our advantage, viewing the rugged beauty of
the area and breathing the clean, fresh air.
very special afternoon, late in the trip, Therese, Hazel and I went for short
walk up the Hairy-Nosed Highway (the main dirt road that runs the length of the
park). Venturing back just on dusk we were rewarded with our first ever Northern
Hairy-Nosed Wombat sighting - a young wombat trotted across our path and back
into its burrow. It was one of the most awesome events in all of our lives!! We
rushed back to camp, did a happy dance around the camp fire, and excitedly told
the others of our lucky find. In seconds we'd joined an elite group - we were
three of only 500 odd people in the entire world to have seen a Northern Hairy-Nosed
Wombat in the wild!
time walks were not allowed during the census as human presence around the burrows
could disturb the wombats normal nightly activity and the census results may have
been skewed. However, on our very last night at Epping Forest, with the hair census
complete and the samples catalogued and ready in the freezer, Alan rewarded us
with a spot light tour. After dinner we set out full of anticipation, excitement
and nerves. We very slowly travelled the length of the park, three spotlights
arching across the dark and still night. To our major delight we were honoured
with the presence of three wombats during the couple of hours we were out. Every
volunteer had the very special privilege of seeing a Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat
in the wild - a fitting end to our trip and a wonderful reward for all our hard
work. We returned to camp and opened a bottle or two of champaign to celebrate.
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats needs your help. The project receives very little
funding from government authorities and saving this species very much relies on
the generous donations from the public.
that donations were desperately needed, Carol and I discussed how to use our AusGeo
sponsorship to its best advantage - we very much wanted to donate to the project,
to put the money where it was needed most.
we had thought to provide the project with money to buy one or two monitoring
collars. However, in the end, we decided to donate a major portion of our sponsorship
to the project to help purchase a set of scales that will be installed at a feeding
station. Once the scales are installed, when the wombats come in to feed they
will be weighed at the same time ruling out the need for human contact. In the
past wombats were captured to be weighed, which is very distressing to a wild
wombat. With the help of AusGeo it was money very well spent.
species is one of Australia's most vulnerable - 115 in one locationů. make that
way through our trip Todd came across Saggy Baggy Wombat, an old wombat near the
end of her life. Out walking one afternoon Todd found Saggy Baggy at the entrance
of her burrow, we think soaking up the suns warmth on her skin and bone body.
We set up camera equipment at the entrance of her burrow so that she could be
monitored and we also set up a feed and water station close by. During the subsequent
days we watched on film the Old Girl of Epping shuffle around her burrow and eat
and drink what we had offered. She was so skinny and much of her fur had fallen
out and we felt good that she once again had a full tummy and we hoped that she
days after returning home Hazel and Dennis emailed us all to advise that Saggy
Baggy Wombat had died. Her death well and truly brought it home just how vulnerable
the species is and just how desperately they need our help to survive.
very sad, we saw the death of Saggy Baggy Wombat not as an end but as a cycle
of life. It is too soon to tell what kind of new numbers we're looking at for
the species, but based on the increased activity of the 2007 Hair Census compared
to the last census we're hoping that there are lots wombat joeys running around
Epping Forest, and maybe one of them will move into Saggy Baggy's now empty burrow.
two weeks I spent at Epping Forest were hot, dirty and bloody hard work, but they
were two of the best weeks of my life. Carol and I - and the other volunteers
- got to do our bit to help save the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats. I urge any
one of you who has read this story and now feels that tingle of eagerness to be
involved to jump right in there - you will be rewarded with an achievement that
you will certainly feel proud of!
can be sent to "EPA Wombat Survival Fund", Dr Alan Horsup, PO Box 3130, REDHILL
here for more photos of my trip to Epping Forest
the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombats
Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat Recovery Plan