The Critically Endangered Species File: Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat
By Sean Crawley
Each edition of SHIFT presents one species of life that is classified as critically endangered, Homo sapiens excluded. By definition, whether it be by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), or your nation state’s environmental governance structure such as the Department of the Environment in Australia, critically endangered means that the species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild in the immediate future.
Species: Lasiorhinus krefftii
Range: The current distribution is restricted to two small sites in Queensland, Australia: Epping Forest National Park, and the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge
- Current small population (<200) and limited distribution
- Predation by wild dogs
- Climate Change
It’s hard to miss the irony that the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat’s demise and possible salvation have been largely shaped by the agricultural and mining industries. The current tussle between these two, to win the hearts of the public as caring, sharing and environmentally conscious, and their tenacious claims to the natural resources that drive their relentless pursuit of the bottom line, may in the end be a side show to the climatic change that could easily wipe yet another mammal off the face of the Australian Continent.
The Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is one of three species of wombat found in Australia. Fossil evidence suggests it was never as abundant as the common wombat or its closest relative the Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. Since the arrival of Europeans its numbers and distribution have dramatically declined, most likely due to cattle farming. At one point in the 1980s it is thought that only 35 individual remained. Its pre-European distribution spanned from Victoria through New South Wales to Queensland. Until very recently only a single colony in Central Queensland remained. With some concerted efforts that single population has increased in numbers and a small number of that group have been relocated to a second site, also in Queensland.
Like many large mammals the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat (22-39kg) is relatively long-lived and consequently not a prolific breeder. The species needs consecutive reliable wet seasons for the offspring to survive to adulthood. Drought decreases both breeding activity and the grass growth which is the sole diet of the Northern Hairy-nosed wombat. With such a small population and only two locations the species is particularly vulnerable. The long drought in the 1980s saw the population dramatically decline and in 2000 and 2001 the recovering population lost 10 percent of its numbers from dingo and wild dog predation. A 20km fence was built to enclose the population at Epping Forest National Park, and in an act of “corporate responsibility”, Glencore Xstrata, have sponsored the creation of the second wombat colony to a site at the Richard Underwood Nature Refuge. This may seem a generous act on behalf of the mining industry but considering “Australia’s largest coalminer, Glencore, paid almost zero tax over the past three years, despite income of $15 billion, as it radically reduced its tax exposure by taking large, unnecessarily expensive loans from its associates overseas”, the insignificance of its financial contribution is put into perspective.¹ The real insult is that while the mining giant is digging starter burrows for the wombat with one hand, with the other hand it is ruthlessly digging so much coal out of the ground that the impact of the consequent climate change will likely render any efforts of conservation futile.
Australians have recently voted in a new government that not only sings the song of growth, but against the trend of many other governments, is repealing legislation and initiatives to combat climate change. They even appealed to UNESCO to delist forest wilderness recently listed as World Heritage. The efforts that have seen some success in increasing the numbers of Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats should rightly be applauded and supported. But if Australia is to stem its devastating history of mammalian extinction, dingo-proof fences and token corporate greenwashing will be equivalent to pissing into the wind. Dissent and large-scale resistance to the rapacious march of industrialised civilisation is the call to which all can respond. Ignorance of political ideology and complacency towards the impact of government guarantees that the beneficiaries of the monetary profits from agriculture and mining will remain undeterred in their destruction of the planet.