Dr Chris Brown's Mission To Save Wombats From Deadly Parasites Causing Blindness
A tiny skin mite is decimating our population of wombats, and Dr Chris Brown is on a mission to stop it.
It is well-known that koalas are common carriers of chlamydia, and that the Tasmanian devil population is being ravaged by a fast-spreading facial cancer -- but few people know the wombat population is facing its own health battle.
Mange mites, tiny creatures which burrow into skin, infect 90 percent of common wombats across the country.
The mites cause wombats to develop thick skin crusts, endless itching and deadly infections. Many become blind and deaf before they die slowly and painfully.
In Narawntapu National Park in Tasmania, once a wombat wonderland home to thousands, there are just three survivors.
The story is similar across many parts of country, with the mite being a death sentence for up to 95 percent of infected wild wombats.
The mite was introduced to Australia by early European settlers, and it is Dr Chris Brown's mission to give the native marsupial a fighting chance.
"I'm strongly of the belief that it is our fault [the mites] are here, and now we have to help [the wombats]," Brown told 10 daily
"Because Australian animals were so isolated from so many other animals and parasites, they have no natural defence against it."
Wombat burrows are the perfect environment for the mite to survive, Brown said.
"Once the mite falls off the wombat, they are sitting in the warm, humid burrow, they are able to survive for quite a long time," he said.
READ MORE: Urgent Calls To Protect The Vulnerable Koala
There is no known cure for the mite. Treatment options are limited to reducing the effects of the mite, and making the wombats as comfortable as possible.
"Treatment currently is an injection, or in the wild they have burrow flaps that dose wombats with an antibiotic," Brown said.
"They need to be dosed once a week for about six or seven weeks, but that's very hard to do."
The burrow flaps, made from ice cream container lids, have a battle cap attached the back filled with the antibiotic, and is splashed on to wombat when they enter the burrow.
In NSW, journalist Neil Varcoe has been treating wombats on his property in Capertee Valley, near Mudgee.
"We had incredibly sick animals covered in sores, going blind and deaf from the mite," Varcoe told 10 daily.
"The general advice from our neighbours was the only solution was a gun."
But Varcoe decided he and his family would try and help the wombats.
In a call out on Instagram, Varcoe asked for donations of bottle caps and ice cream container lids, for home-made burrow flaps needed to dose wild wombats.
In an amazing showing of support, cafes and ordinary people statewide donated the caps and lids needed.
"I don't know how many we had donated, one cafe sent us 300 bottle caps," Varcoe said.
Working with WIRES, Varcoe has helped to treat wombats infected by the mite and inoculate those lucky enough to escape infection.
"It's been really heartening to see the population bounce back," he said.
"It's crazy at night now, they have an absolute party."
But this type of treatment is not a long-term solution, but is merely holding back the tide.
"You obviously need people to go out and put the flaps over the burrows, and you need people to go out a week later and refresh the drug that is in them," Brown said.
"What they have found, that in some areas once you stop the treatment then the mites come back."
The common wombat is the most affected by the mite, and there is a growing number of cased in the southern hairy nose population. But it is the critically endangered northern hairy nose wombat that is most at risk.
"If the mite gets into the northern hairy nose wombat population, the belief is that it would actually make them extinct," Brown said.
Brown has started a campaign to raise funds for research into the mite, with the hope a cure or a vaccine will one day be found. Funds donated will also go to help communities with current treatment methods to stop the spread of the mite.