Explainer blog: Wombat mange – Australia’s secret animal welfare crisis

Imagine your entire body is covered in an unbearably itchy rash so bad that when you move, your thickened skin cracks along ridges all across your body. These infected fissures, wet with blood and pus, are slowly drying out and splitting even deeper. Soon they’ll be flyblown. You can’t sleep and you’re exhausted from scratching. Your thirst is insatiable; your broken skin means you can’t regulate your body temperature and you lose fluid faster than you can drink. You’re hungry and constantly search for food, but you can’t see or hear anymore – your eyes and ears closed with swollen, flaking skin. The pain and tightness of your cracking skin is insufferable. If someone doesn’t help you soon, you’re going to die – either of dehydration, starvation, blindly wandering onto roads and being hit by vehicles, or by a secondary infection like pneumonia caused by your suppressed immune system.

This is the horrible reality of an untold number of wombats living with mange in NSW and beyond.

What is wombat mange?

Mange is a skin infection caused when Sarcoptes sabiei mites eat through a wombat’s skin, causing intense discomfort and itching. Over time, the scratching-obsessed wombat’s skin becomes thick and crusty, forming ridges over their entire body. When these scabs become dry and split open, the wounds can become flyblown and infected. Robbed of mobility due to their thickened, broken skin, the wombat also often loses their sense of sight, smell and hearing. Left untreated, the wombat will die a slow and agonising death, eventually succumbing to dehydration, starvation, being hit by a vehicle after blindly wandering onto a road, or secondary infections caused by a suppressed immune system.

There is a 100% infection transfer rate from mother to Joey and a very high rate of wombat to wombat transfer as they are social animal and share infected burrows. This wipes out entire wombat colonies in a short amount of time.

Sadly, this is the fate of thousands of Australia’s wombats; mange affects an estimated 5% of Australia’s southern hairy-nosed and bare-nosed (common) wombat species, with 90% of local populations affected and entire localised populations going extinct from mange. Mange is a devastatingly painful way for wombats to die, and a heartbreaking affliction for people to witness wombats suffering with.

Mange is recognised by all Australian states and territories as an animal welfare issue.  It is not known exactly where mange came from, though it may have been introduced by early settlers as scabies or during settlement with the introduction of foxes and domestic dogs.

How is wombat mange treated?

Though mange is a devastating condition, individual wombats can be treated effectively, provided many initial hurdles to their treatment are overcome.

Free living wombats do not cope well in captivity as they suffer significant stress, and with an already suppressed immune system, usually die within days. This means it is not feasible to take wombats into care to be treated, leaving treating wombats in the wild as the only option for treatment.

The fact that wombats are nocturnal and live underground also makes treatment difficult, as does the fact that many wombats live on private land, meaning their health and wellbeing is dependent on the landowner’s concern (as their permission is required to allow others onto the property to treat wombats).

Currently the most effective form of wombat mange treatment relies on a long-term, hands-on program that uses the mite-killing medication Cydectin (Moxidectin) as a topical treatment. Cydectin can be administered in two ways:

  1. Direct application method: using a “pole and scoop” to pour medication onto the wombat’s back – usually only possible when wombats are so badly affected by mange they are less mobile and at least partially blind and deaf, meaning people can get close enough to administer the treatment directly
  2. Burrow flap method: using a milk bottle cap and an ice cream container lid fixed together on a wire frame – this enables a few drops of medication precariously positioned to pour onto the backs of free-roaming wombats as they enter their burrows

Though proven to be effective by researchers at the University of Tasmania, treating wombats with Cydectin is difficult, time-consuming, resource-intensive, and reliant on the availability of devoted wildlife carers. This treatment option is further restricted by the need for all users of Cydectin to have a permit if treating wombats with the medication.

Historically, very few people had government permission to use Cydectin on any animals other than cows and deer. However, in recent years the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority granted Mange Management Inc. permission to distribute sub-permits giving other organisations legal authority to use Cydectin on wombats. Other wildlife and wombat rescue carers and organisations can now apply for a sub-permit in able to legally treat mange-affected wombats with Cydectin.

The photos below show a wombat in the Southern Highlands before and after treatment for mange by Wombatised.

How treating wombat mange helps biodiversity

Treating wombats for mange will also have a positive effect on the flora found in wombat habitat, as well as other animals, therefore assisting in maintaining biodiversity in these areas.

Wombats can be thought of as Australia’s natural bush regenerators: by burrowing, wombats churn up soil which increases nutrient cycling and buries seeds, with their digging also breaking up hardened soil, allowing moisture to penetrate the land, causing sprouts to grow. As wombats eat large quantities of grass and bark, they transform their habitats into areas known as “green picks”, where weeds are minimal and the grass is nutritious. This allows other herbivore species to benefit from wombats’ presence, not just because their burrows provide shelter for many other species during extreme weather events. One pilot study showed there was up to an 80% increase of other wildlife around wombat burrow sites, proving the remarkable impact wombats have on Australian biodiversity.

Why we need for funding and research now

The pain wombats endure as a result of mange is almost unimaginable, which is why the Animal Justice Party NSW believes it is cruel and unacceptable to let them suffer, particularly when community-based treatment programs show reasonable efficacy with the potential for substantial improvement.

The Animal Justice Party NSW therefore believes governments must help fund wombat mange research and treatment programs. Though effective, current treatment programs are hindered by legal barriers and a heavy reliance on equipment availability and wildlife carers’ time. For this reason research is urgently needed to develop more effective treatments to stop individual wombat suffering and preserve the species.

Ultimately, finding the best possible treatment for wombat mange is reliant on funding and research. Funding is urgently needed to:

  1. Invest in research into effective wombat mange control and eradication
  2. Supply licensed wildlife carers with the skills and equipment to successfully treat mange in wombats
  3. Campaign to increase community awareness about the suffering caused by wombat mange and the risk wombat population decline poses on ecological biodiversity

To date, the NSW Government has committed no funding into the management of wombat mange. This is why we are campaigning for significant government investment into wombat mange treatment and research.

The University of Tasmania is currently investigating a new treatment option for mange-affected wombats and is undertaking research to better understand what causes mange outbreaks. This preliminary research is showing that a different, longer-lasting chemical currently used on cats and dogs could protect wombats for 1-3 months after a single treatment (Cydectin only lasts a week, while mites can survive in burrows for around 3 weeks).

Because research like this is vital into developing better treatment for wombats with mange, we are urging the NSW Government to work with universities like the University of Tasmania, along with wombat preservation organisations and wildlife carers, to determine how best to fund wombat mange treatment programs and research in NSW.

Speak up for wombats 

NSW has the chance to lead Australia in the research and treatment of wombat mange, saving thousands of wombats from intense suffering and prolonged, painful death, and increasing our state’s ecological biodiversity at the same time. This is why we will continue to put pressure on the NSW Government to invest in the management of wombat mange.

And you can help. Please sign our petition calling on NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean to:

1. Invest in research into effective wombat mange control and eradication
2. Fund grassroots organisations, and individual licensed wildlife carers and volunteers to successfully treat mange in wombats

We would also like the Minister to acknowledge the incredible work being done by grassroots and local wildlife carers and organisations, and for their the on-ground experience and learning to be utilised in wombat mange treatment programs.

Sign the petition here: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/tell-the-nsw-environment-minister-to-save-wombats-from-deadly-disease

What to do if you see a wombat with mange

If you come across a wild wombat with mange, note the time, date and exact location you saw them, and try to take photographs if possible. Using this information, report the sighting to your local wildlife rescue organisation, or a wombat-specific organisation such as Mange Management.

You can also report any wombats you see through the WomSAT community program which has been established to help map reported sightings of wombats and their burrows.

If you want to become involved in the hands-on treatment of mange or read more about treatment options, visit Mange Management.