The iconic wombat has faced numerous challenges since white settlement of the Australian continent. And the events of recent months have elevated several threats.
The wombat may not prove capable of adapting to a hotter, drier, more fire-ravaged Australian landscape. Numerous other species face similar threats. Whether, and how, they adapt is up to us.
As you find your own way of coming to terms with the horror of Australia’s bushfires, spare a thought for the wombat. I would ask that you consider, especially, the most plentiful of Australia’s three wombat species: the bare-nosed wombat. For most of the past couple of hundred years, and even today in some quarters, these have been labelled the ‘common wombat’, so abundant have they been thought to be. Populations of the two hairy-nosed species are much, much smaller; the northern hairy nosed population is perhaps only 200 animals, and the southern hairy nosed population, while numbering in the thousands, is also precarious, including because of chronic disease.
The bare-nosed wombat is the species that most often comes into contact with humans, often with fatal consequences. People who travel the Kings Highway between Canberra and Bateman’s Bay would rarely make the trip without seeing at least one bare-nosed wombat carcass. Each year, cars kill hundreds of wombats on this stretch of road. Other roads around Canberra, including the Monaro, Barton, Federal and Hume Highways, often display significant numbers of wombat carcasses.
The nature of our contact with the bare-nosed wombat leads us to believe that it is in abundance; if so many are being hit by cars, then they must simply be ‘everywhere’. But the truth is very different. Obviously, wombats are not found at all on most of Australia’s roads. And they are no longer found on most roads along which they once lived. The habitat range of the bare-nosed wombat has contracted enormously in the past couple of hundred years. On the mainland, they were once common in south-east Queensland, right through the Great Dividing Range of NSW, across most of Victoria and in the south-east of South Australia. Today, wombat populations are fragmented, being confined to cooler regions in close proximity to forests.
The wombat has never enjoyed a good relationship with Australia’s farmers, and has been the unfortunate target of generations of yokels with an appetite for bloody pursuits. Even today, in a pub not very far from Canberra, once the beer has been flowing for a while, you can hear them bragging about the numbers they have shot or mown down in the dead of night with their improvised vehicles in paddocks and along wild country roads. Never mind that none of this is legal; the wombat is a pest. Notions of custodianship and environmental stewardship don’t penetrate these gormless skulls.
The bare-nosed wombat is a robust animal, but it has tolerance limits. It lives in deep burrows and avoids grazing during the day because it cannot tolerate high temperatures. It needs access to fresh drinking water. It needs high quality vegetation. And it doesn’t cope well with stress, which is presumed to be one of the reasons for its increasing susceptibility to mange.
The wombat has suffered from habitat loss due to farming and human settlement. Wombats enjoy living in much the same sorts of places we humans find amenable. We do know how to co-exist with these animals. But, of course, we don’t need to bother ourselves with the inconvenience of co-existence. It is simpler, and much more fun, to exterminate them with our rifles and various motorised instruments of sport.
And this summer has unleashed on our wombats a host of elevated threats. They are being scorched by unprecedentedly high temperatures, their communities are running out of drinking water, their grasslands are oxidising and their forests combusting, and they are being exposed to unprecedented levels of stress. It turns out that many of the places that are burning this summer are also the places of last refuge of this animal. It is by no means certain that the bare-nosed wombat will prove capable of adapting to a hotter, drier, more fire-ravaged Australian landscape.
And what is true of the wombat is also true for many other native species. Hundreds of millions of native animals have been killed by these fires, and countless numbers maimed. It will be some time before we know how many species have been made extinct. It seems likely that there has been an irreversible shock to the nation’s biodiversity.
This generation of Australians may never reach a consensus on its culpability for these outcomes; though future generations surely will.
Of course, the human cost too has been enormous. Nobody can quantify the material damage of these unrelenting fires, far less the psychological. But we have surely had an abrupt reality check. We have been shocked to learn that our quality of life is considerably less than we had been imagining only a few months ago.
Thus far, we have proven ourselves seriously inept in dealing with the threats posed by climate change. We have eschewed meaningful mitigation efforts. Several Australian governments have done their best to minimise our contribution to global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And most have not wanted to see stronger action from the so-called ‘major emitters’ either, for fear of the damage that would do to Australia’s fossil fuel exports, particularly of thermal coal. And in respect of adaptation, our political leaders have, for the most part, demonstrated reckless indifference.
We need to do better. But even if we don’t, our extinction is unlikely, of course. We humans will adapt to a hotter, drier, more dangerous Australian continent. We still have time to do so in an intelligent, proactive manner. The alternative is that we are forced to do so in a far more costly and traumatic, reactive manner. We can choose how we demonstrate our resilience.
The wombat, though, has little capacity to exercise control over any of the things that will determine its fate. That is true of all of our wildlife species. Whether they adapt, and how they do so, is also up to us.
Ken Henry was Secretary to the Treasury from 2001 to 2011.