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More Endangered Than Giant Pandas

Saving the Northern Hairy-Nosed Wombat from Extinction

Before I talk about wombats, I think it's only fair to admit that I am not, in fact, a scientist. Wombats, for me, are a passion (a passion, which I should admit, has just grown and grown). So probably the most important takeaway from the whole talk is to realize that it is entirely possible to engage with science in the world around you even if you are not, or don't aspire to be, a formal scientist. I'm a great example of discovering that practitioners of science are enthusiastic to share their world and to allow volunteers to participate actively.

So what is a wombat? And why should anyone, anywhere, care? There are actually three distinct wombat species: the bare-nosed, the southern hairy-nosed, and the northern hairy-nosed. All are Australian marsupials that live in burrows and are nocturnal. Wombats are related to koalas, but while koalas live in trees, wombats live underground. And like all marsupials the newborns are tiny—about the size of a jellybean—and develop in a pouch (unlike kangaroos, by the way: Wombat pouches face backward). Although wombats are quite solid, weighing 50–75 pounds, over short distances they can run quite fast and, in fact, can knock over an adult human. In the wild, a wombat's average lifespan is about 12 to 15 years. Wombats are herbivores that graze on grass and other foliage (in captivity they're known to like sweet potato and corn on the cob), and although they aren't rodents, their teeth grow continually for their entire lives. Probably everyone's favorite fact about wombats is their cube-shaped poo!

Intriguingly, at one time there was a giant wombat, about the size of a hippo! Diprotodons are long gone, however. But as you can see, today's wombats have had their native habitat reduced significantly. The most dire situation is faced by the northerns: By the 1970s, there was only one remaining colony with under 40 individuals. Today, with a management plan I'll talk about a bit later, there are about 200 northern hairy-nosed wombats alive. For comparison—and as an example of successful endangered-species management—currently, there are about 2,000 giant pandas in the wild and 50 or more in zoos around the world.

So how did I, personally, get interested in wombats? I first encountered a wombat at the San Diego Zoo and admit that I found the hairy nose pretty intriguing. A few years later, my wife and I traveled to Australia and visited Taronga Zoo in Sydney, which is where I learned there's more than one wombat species. And then a few years ago it occurred to me, "I wonder how many zoos in North America have wombats?" It turned out to be under 10 (yes, really), so it was pretty easy to visit all of them in one summer, plus the following winter break. Then I looked into where I might see wombats in Europe: just a few zoos with wombats there and even fewer in Asia. (I'm probably the only person to answer, "Why do you wish to enter Thailand?" with "So I can see the wombat at Bangkok Zoo"). And then, magically I really have to admit, my wife Christina Devlin ’86 said, "You know, to see wombats you really have to go to Australia. Would you like to spend a few weeks, or maybe two months, there?" I think it took me about a quarter of a second to say, "Yes!" In practice, however, it actually took me almost two years to visit every wombat around the world.

Let me explain for a moment why it took so much longer than I thought. I initially received a list of wombats at zoos from Species 360, a non-profit in Minnesota that provides software to zoos. It showed about 38 zoos around the world, so by the time I had visited the ones in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, I thought I was halfway through. What I didn't know at the time was that zoos have to pay to put their data into the database—so while big zoos like San Diego or Washington or Sydney do so, lots of small zoos don't. In fact, I've now been to 97 zoos and wildlife parks with wombats, so the database was missing more than half the data! And yes, I think there's a larger lesson in there about learning what you don't know when you embark on a project.

Now, I promise not to tell you about all 97 zoos! But there are a few that really stand out for me, and that I want to share. And to be clear: zoos have bare-nosed wombats and southern hairy-nosed wombats (a few zoos have both), but there are no northern hairy-nosed wombats in captivity anywhere.

I certainly want to mention the Los Angeles Zoo. I wanted to visit in January 2015, but I'd heard that LA Zoo's Australia House, home to Murray, their southern wombat, wasn't open to the public. I called the zoo and asked if there was any chance to see Murray. Remarkably, I promptly received a call-back and was told, "I can't make any promises just now, but we do want to engage with visitors who have a passion." A few weeks later, I received a private tour of Australia House and was able to see Murray. What's especially remarkable is that LA Zoo is a municipal zoo funded by the City of Los Angeles: it's certainly not a for-profit entity with substantial resources.

As you might imagine, I've kept in touch with the staff and keepers at LA Zoo and was delighted when Australia House was re-opened to the public later in the year. Even better, last year Olga, a female southern, joined Murray!

I had another unexpected experience at Pairi Daiza, which is in Belgium. I was already in Antwerp, with plans to visit nearby Planckendael Zoo and its bare-Nosed wombat. Then I heard there were wombats in rural Brugelette. I initially thought, What a shame—it's pretty far away! And then I thought, Oh for heaven's sake, Belgium is a small country. And by taking three different trains, I was able to visit Pairi Daiza. Their wombat exhibit turned out to be one of the best I've ever seen. In addition to access to an outdoor enclosure, the wombats have a nocturnal house with man-made burrows visible at eye-level through transparent plastic. It's a remarkable perspective on the species.

Another strong wombat exhibit turned out to be in Copenhagen Zoo. Their wombats were acquired recently from Tasmania, and are housed adjacent to Tasmanian devils. The fencing for both species is transparent, allowing visitors, especially children, to see the animals at ground-level. I was also invited to see the off-display indoor area, with well-designed nesting boxes.

In addition to the wombat I saw in Bangkok, there are a few zoos in Japan with wombats. I especially want to mention Yokohama Zoo. I visited on a Saturday and diffidently asked if anyone spoke English. Out came the zoo's scientific director as well as the press officer. My idea of visiting every zoo with a wombat clearly delighted them, and to my surprise I learned that zoos in both Nagano and Ikeda (which I'd never heard of, and turned out to be outside Osaka) had several wombats.

In Australia, I was especially impressed with Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary in Queensland. At the time I visited, Eddie, one of the two southerns, was in the hospital with a chest infection. The vet said he needed some exercise, so with some trepidation, the keepers put him in a harness. It turned out Eddie loved going for a walk! In fact, the vet had to remind the keepers that Eddie was ill and not to overtire him. Fortunately, I was able to stop by Currumbin three months later, and was pleased to find Eddie back in his usual enclosure.

There are a few other wombats at parks in Australia I want to mention. Like Eddie at Currumbin, Icy at Cleland Wildlife Park near Adelaide is a Southern, but she's an unusual golden color. And I was lucky to get this picture of a bare-nosed mother at Kuranda Koala Gardens near Cairns, with her joey peeking out of the backward-facing pouch. And then there's Trowunna Wildlife Park, in Tasmania. Trowunna is a small nonprofit that primarily takes in rescues, many of which will be rehabilitated and then released back to the wild, like these two. But at least one wombat was accepted from a large for- profit facility that found him to be too aggressive. He's been with humans too long to be released into the wild, but once at Trowunna he was much calmer in an outdoor enclosure all to himself.

In addition to visiting every zoo in the world with wombats, I really enjoyed some chances to see them in the wild. It's easiest to spot bare-nosed wombats in Tasmania: They're readily seen at Cradle Mountain National Park (often grazing in late afternoon). They're also found on some offshore islands such as Flinders and Maria. I especially like my picture of a bare-nosed wombat at Wilsons Promontory National Park in Victoria, happily scratching on an old tire.

So now let's talk about critically endangered northern hairy-nosed wombats, and what's being done to prevent the species from going extinct. As I mentioned earlier, a single remaining colony of probably fewer than 40 individuals was protected in the 1970s. (There are still no northerns at any zoos even today). Epping Forest National Park was carved out of two cattle ranches in remote central Queensland. Interestingly, although it has the name "National Park," in fact it's not open to the public and exists as a scientific reserve. It's actually pretty rare to spot a wombat—in part, there are very few of them, but also they're nocturnal. But not only wombats live in the park: There are (inevitably) kangaroos, birds, and, yes, snakes. Now, for about 30 years, the area was monitored by the Queensland Department of the Environment and Heritage Protection, with occasional estimates of the number of northern wombats and the number of active burrows. The numbers were growing slowly, but then, in 2001, there was a major setback: one or more wild dogs captured 10 to 12 joey wombats. Since wombats only give birth to one young every two to three years, that was a terrible loss: about 10 percent of the total population. So then the entire park was fenced to prevent predators from ever doing so again.

If you think about it, though, there's a big problem with fencing the only habitat the species lives in: While the fence prevents predators from entering, it simultaneously prevents any wombats from dispersing out. In fact, that's a problem in several ways: First of all, wombats are territorial and, except during mating, they're solitary. By fencing the park, the Environment department inherently put a cap on the size of the population. Also, Australia is particularly susceptible to major climatic events such as floods and fires. And what if a major disease were to break out (as has happened recently with Tasmanian devils, which have lost an estimated 90 percent of their population)?

So in 2009, with some significant corporate funding, Queensland set up a second site for northern hairy-nosed wombats. It's a translocation site, that is, habitat that did not have any wombats in it, but that could be used to move some wombats from Epping Forest to start a new colony. That way, there would be at least some insurance against a fire or flood or disease at the primary site. And yes, the second site was predator-fenced before any wombats were introduced. The second site is much smaller than Epping Forest, with only about a dozen northern hairy-nosed wombats living there.

So how did I, just a guy with a passion, manage to visit both sites (to Epping Forest three times, in fact), even though both are both closed to the public? This is really where we can see how professional scientists are willing, even eager, to allow laypeople to engage and collaborate. I knew about the sites (and that they were closed to the public), and that they were managed by Queensland's Environment Department. Of course the department has a website, and on it I found a list of offices around the state. Looking at the list, and a map, it seemed that the closest office to Epping Forest was in Rockhampton, on Queensland's central coast (not too close, actually: over 300 miles away). I was actually in Rockhampton to visit the zoo, so (and I still can't quite believe I did this), I just walked into the office building—without an appointment—and asked, "Is there anyone here who can talk to me about northern hairy-nosed wombats?" I met a woman in the office who said, "Actually, you'd need to go to a different location about 20 minutes from here; let me call to make sure there's someone there just now." And then she very nicely drew me a map! So off I went, and, unbelievably, Dr. Alan Horsup, the world's leading expert on northern hairy-nosed wombats, came out and asked, "Can I help you?"

I explained that I was trying to visit every wombat in the world and I knew that Epping Forest was closed to the public, but was there any way to visit? And Alan took me into his office, chatted for perhaps 10 minutes, and said, "How about I take you the next time I go? Maybe in about two months or so?" I later learned, by the way, that Alan spends a fair amount of time in the field, and of course he might have been on vacation, and for that matter it turns out that he usually works from home on Mondays, so it was pure chance—quite a chance!—that he was in when I happened to stop by.

Anyway, Alan kept his word, and he took me to Epping Forest National Park in early November 2015. It's a full day's drive from Rockhampton, and requires a 4WD vehicle: the last 70 miles (and inside the Park itself) are all dirt road. There were two reasons Alan was visiting. On a day-to-day basis, the park houses volunteer caretakers who stay for a month or two. My chance to visit came when there was a change of caretakers and Alan was providing brief training. The caretakers' primary responsibility is to monitor the predator fence for any gaps: At least half of the perimeter is driven past, slowly, every day (since even a small gap or break would potentially allow predators in). The caretakers' other responsibility, which is probably less important on a day-to-day basis but more interesting to conduct, is to check some 20 water stations and camera traps around the park for any activity. The water bowls are filled automatically and are each surrounded by sand (and have a motion-detector camera trained on them). Every morning, the caretakers visit the stations—it takes several hours—looking for wombat prints in the sand, raking the sand clean, and switching out the cameras' SD cards. Often, of course, there's no sign of activity. (Sometimes there's evidence that, say, an echidna visited.) But it really is "citizen-science": The volunteer caretakers are essential to maintaining the remote infrastructure.

The second reason Alan was visiting Epping Forest in November 2015 was to assess whether there were any new wombat burrows, since they are a good sign of an increasing population). Alan (but not me!) took a 45-minute low-altitude helicopter ride over the park, using GPS to mark what looked like new burrows. Over the next two days, on the ground, we went to investigate. Some, predictably, were known burrows (they just looked different from the air); some weren't really burrows at all, but in practice we identified at least five new burrows. That was my first, and at the time I assumed only, visit to Epping Forest National Park.

Now, once every three years, there's a formal census of the northern hairy-nosed wombat population. And—unbelievably—Alan very graciously invited me to participate in the 2016 census. Now, when you hear the word "census" you might think, So they're going to see, and count, all the Northern wombats in the park, right? Actually, no. The animals are nocturnal to start with, and to avoid double-counting, you'd have to trap them, which is very stressful. So about 15 years ago, Alan and several other scientists in Australia developed a non-intrusive approach. Rather than try to trap each individual, the goal is to capture some DNA from each animal, which can then be analyzed in a university lab. Now, how do you get a DNA sample in a non-intrusive way? Remember that during the day, wombats sleep in underground burrows. The design protocol is that every entrance to every burrow has double-sided tape stretched between two metal stakes. When a wombat either enters or exits the burrow, some hair would be caught on the tape. It took a dozen people two long (and hot) mornings to set out the tapes. For the next week, each morning the team would set out carefully, collecting hair samples and replacing each tape. In the afternoon, hair samples were carefully tweezered off the tape and preserved for lab analysis. By the way, there are around 450 burrows, nearly all with several entrances. So every day that was more than 1,100 tapes to check, and well over 100 individual hair samples to preserve per day. (In practice to reduce the chance of data loss, actually three hair samples from every tape were preserved).

Now, let's recognize this approach cannot provide a precise number of wombats: Even over a week of data collection, it's possible that some wombats managed not to leave any hair samples at all. But given the number of samples collected, it provides a statistically valid estimate in a non-intrusive way. As importantly, since the census is done every three years, it gives a reasonable trend-line of the size of the population over time. That was my second visit to Epping Forest National Park.

Remarkably, Alan invited me to visit a third time about six months later. In that visit, the goal was to check the exterior of every burrow for any sign of activity. Not every burrow is in active use all the time, so getting a sense of how many are in use—just like monitoring how many burrows are present altogether—is a good (and non-intrusive) way of assessing the health and size of the population. At every burrow entrance, we looked for signs such as wombat tracks, dung, scratching, and recent digging. And yes, I was really pleased to get a photo of a mother wombat and her joey, peeking out from a burrow!

In addition to three visits to Epping Forest, I was also invited to serve as a volunteer at the translocation site in southwestern Queensland. Richard Underwood Nature Refuge. (It is named after the local farmer who agreed to provide a modest amount of land, which is surrounded by his farm, to house northern hairy-nosed wombats.) In 2009, a handful of wombats were flown from Epping Forest to start a new colony. Like at Epping Forest, the surrounding fence and the motion-capture cameras are monitored on a day-to-day basis by volunteer caretakers. My visit coincided with a graduate student's research study on the effect of invasive buffel grass on the wombats' diet. (It's already known that wombats will eat buffel grass. The concern is that buffel may be crowding out the wombats' standard diet.) Like the burrow-monitoring activity, at the nature refuge we looked for signs of wombat activity so the wombats' presence could be correlated to the locations of buffel grass.

You'll notice that the conservation of critically-endangered northern hairy-nosed wombats relies not only on professional management by Queensland's Department of the Environment and Heritage Protection, but also on non-scientist participants. The caretakers that conduct the essential task of monitoring the predator fences are volunteers, and projects such as the census and activity monitoring at the two sites also rely on volunteers. Put another way, the cost of employing paid staff to conduct these essential tasks would be far beyond the state's budget for conserving threatened species.

So let's talk about the future: What can be done to enhance the plight of the northern hairy-nosed wombat? As a layman, I'd say there are three distinct opportunities. Probably the most important is to find additional appropriate habitat for new translocation sites. As a practical matter, there are several distinct components to implementing additional sites. First, of course, is finding suitable land: The local soil must be to similar to that at Epping Forest so that the wombats can create burrows.

Second, the land has to be acquired and fenced—which costs a lot of money. And third, the existing landowner has to agree to sell it or donate it. Why is this currently an urgent issue? Nearly the entire population of the species currently lives at Epping Forest—which is near its maximum capacity. Meanwhile, Richard Underwood Nature Refuge is too small to support more than about a dozen wombats, so it, too, is likely at its maximum capacity. There's a very real risk that the population will plateau if other habitats aren't available.

Another second approach to endangered species conservation, which hasn't been taken with northern hairy-nosed wombats, but has been with others, is captive-breeding (as has been done, for example, with giant pandas). Currently there are no northern hairy-nosed wombats in captivity anywhere (either in zoos or in research facilities). Koalas, bare-nosed wombats, and southern hairy-nosed wombats have all been successfully bred and raised in captivity. Perhaps in the future, there will be an opportunity for a small number of northern wombats to live and breed in a carefully managed captive facility.

At least to me, as a layman but who has had the remarkable opportunity learn about northern hairy-nosed wombats, there's a third potential approach which might be taken: greater outreach. For example, only a handful of the 97 zoos I visited had signage explaining there are three separate wombat species, and that northerns are among the world's most critically endangered mammals. Pandas, for example, are an outstanding example of an endangered species that is well-known and which is better- off for it. Hopefully if more people know about the northerns' plight, more people can prevent their extinction.

For me, as a non-scientist, the past few years have been a remarkable opportunity to follow a passion and encounter all three wombat species in captive and wild environments. As importantly, I've had the chance to meet with lots of people who care about wildlife and about the environment, people who have allowed a layman to engage and contribute. It should go without saying that I appreciate the opportunity I've had here to share my experiences with wombats: I certainly encourage everyone to find their own way to engage and participate.