Wildlife workers and scientists are on the search for a site they hope could help save the northern hairy-nosed wombat — one of the world’s most critically endangered animals — and they say time is running out.
Dave Harper heads the Queensland Government threatened species group that is caring for an animal they rarely get to see in the wild.
The northern hairy-nosed wombat is shy, elusive and mostly nocturnal, which means it remains something of a mystery, even to the wildlife officers and volunteers working to bring it back from the brink of extinction.
Volunteer caretaker Geoff Spanner said the animal lived underground and only came out at night.
“[The wombat] leaves all these tantalising clues about what it does — leaves these gorgeous little footprints walking along — and you never see it except on the cameras,” Mr Spanner said.
The northern hairy-nosed wombat was thought to be extinct until a tiny population was discovered near Clermont, north-west of Rockhampton in central Queensland.
But by the 1980s there were just 35 of the animals left.
The state launched a concerted recovery campaign, which included fencing the site after wild dogs killed a number of joeys.
“We were able, through a number of management techniques, to bring the numbers back up,” Mr Harper said.
By 2006, there were about 140 but with all the wombats in one place the researchers feared the worst.
“It was only a small population and a single disaster like fire, flood, or disease could have wiped them out,” Mr Harper said.
“To secure a species you need to have populations in other areas.”
It has now been 10 years since a second, more southern refuge, was founded near St George in south-west Queensland, after local landholders offered up 130 hectares to create what is now the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge.
A small group of wombats moved in and this year a new arrival was cause for celebration.
“We now have a joey, which is a great sign for this site,” Mr Harper said.
“It just says that you provide the right habitat and these guys will do the thing they need to do … and a lot of it.”
The translocation was a steep learning curve for the scientists who are still piecing together the mystery of the wombats, but the little diggers have now settled into their new home.
Now the researchers said the next essential step was to find a spot for a third and larger refuge for the growing population.
But it is not easy to find. The wombats need a large area with a special type of soil and the right kind of habitat.
Researchers also said it needed to be south of the original population as insurance against climate change.
“We’ve learnt so much,” Mr Harper said.
“We’re able to move these animals, we have a balanced population here now, and we’re able to take the lessons learnt from this translocation and we’re able to use them in that site to get a greater success straight away.
“It’s extremely important. It’s really the next step for this species and it’s something that needs to happen if we want to feel comfortable about securing their future.”
Across the two sites there are now about 250 northern hairy-nosed wombats and with more babies likely next year, it will not be long before these growing families need a bigger home.