During the current bushfire season there was a warm and fuzzy story doing the rounds on social media, that even found its way into the mainstream press. It was reported that wombats were leading other native animals into their burrows to escape the raging flames. Whilst other animals do sometimes make use of the maze of wombat burrows, the story was pure fiction – perhaps well intended but a bit of feel-good nonsense compared to the grim reality of the bushfire toll.
Wombats are often portrayed as big dopey animals that are happy to be handled by humans and can even be domesticated in certain circumstances. What’s not widely known is that they have been mercilessly killed and culled ever since the first white settlers set foot in this country.
In Victoria, for example, they were classified as vermin in 1906 and a bounty system of 10 shillings a scalp introduced in 1925. Some 64,000 wombats were killed during the last 16 years that the system was in operation and as Barbara Triggs points out in her book The Wombat:
“They were killed not only on and near farm land but also deep in the forests where they were doing no possible harm to anyone.”
Culling is still widespread in Victoria. In 2018 some 3830 wombats were trapped and culled. Whilst some animals are relocated others have simply been been shot. A furore arose last year when it was revealed rich tourists were being invited to a Victorian farm, owned by a Chinese businessman, to take pot shots at the species. This was the same businessman at the centre of the then investigation into links between casinos, namely Crown, and organised crime.
Whilst not as extensive as Victoria, the culling of wombats still occurs in NSW and other states like Tasmania., both illegally and through the issue of permits. There is a profound irony to the fact that pastoralists who have caused irreparable damage to the land by unnecessary clearing and the degrading of river banks in just a few hundred years, are complaining about a species that has been digging holes for probably thousands.
Just how many wombats perished in the current bushfire tragedy remains to be seen, as is the number that will not survive because of loss of habitat. Ever since the first settlers shot them and ate them we have been slaughtering wombats in huge numbers. The rest of the world has been very generous in donating money to bushfire relief with many of those donations directed towards saving our native wildlife. Maybe if those donors were better informed about our disgraceful conservation record they would be less forthcoming with their donations.
Finally, when it comes to future tourism we could well be in for a similar phenomenon that is happening in Cuba today. Ever since Obama softened US foreign policy towards the communist state there has been a considerable increase in tourists from all over the world. The suggestion is that many of these visitors are there to catch the last years of the ‘old’ Cuba, whilst the paint is still peeling off the buildings and you can still ride around Havana in a cannibalised 57 Chevy. The fear is that if Cuba opens up to the rest of the world and McDonalds and Starbucks move in, much of the country’s former dilapidated charm will disappear.
A flood of tourists could soon arrive in Australia, keen to see the very last of the koalas, quolls, wombats and other highly endangered marsupials in the wild. No doubt there will be some operators who will capitalise on this influx and offer the ‘extinction’ tour experience. “See them in the wild, before they all disappear” will be the pitch – the photo opp of a lifetime. “You might have missed the Dodo and the Tassie Tiger but be right there for the death of yet another species.”