Amid the recent sensational allegations surrounding Crown casino, out popped the story of wombat shooting by Chinese high-rollers at a lodge in rural Murrindindi.
Wildlife protection wasn't on the radar during our recent federal and state elections. But in Parliament last week, Coalition Senator Mathias Cormann faced this accusation from Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young: "Does the government really think that it is appropriate to fast-track Chinese gambling billionaires through our border protection processes, so that they can come to Australia and shoot our wildlife - to come to Australia to shoot wombats? No one in their right mind would say this is appropriate."
The wombat-hunting scandal spread abroad, and coverage included links to previous Aussie wombat stories, including the tale of Tonka the wombat from Townsville, who specialised in tummy-rubs and cuddles. When he died in 2016 the response was overwhelming. For some, Tonka had been the highlight of their Australian trip.
International affection for wombats clearly did not extend to the Murrindindi shooting ranch. The facility's website (translated from Chinese by the Sunday Age)advertised: "It doesn't matter if you don't have any hunting experience, through the guidance of our experts you are sure to become a crack-shot hunting god. Wild rabbits, foxes, wombats, wild ducks … will accompany you on your happy vacation."
Wombats are protected in every Australian state - except Victoria.
Victoria's Wildlife Act 1975 allows a Minister to "unprotect" wildlife if it's causing damage to buildings, property, crops, other animals or the environment. In 1984, the then Minister decided to "unprotect" wombats in 193 of the 2,004 small regions (parishes) that together make up the state. With changing community attitudes, surely it's time to revisit the Minister's decades-old reasoning.
Where wombats are protected, a farmer needs a permit to shoot them. Last year, Victoria authorised the destruction of 3,830 wombats, almost double the kill 10 years ago. But we have no idea how many "unprotected" wombats were killed, and how or why.
Some farmers have serious problems with wombat burrows or holes in paddocks; tractors or motorbikes can get stuck if the earth collapses underneath. But as one wombat supporter said: "if you're going to shoot a wombat on the property, another one is going to come in and use that hole… You need to deter them from the area."
Victoria ranks poorly in recognising the tourism potential of native wildlife. We're the only major state that still promotes duck shooting. We're the only state that fails to protect wombats. We seem to have bipartisan apathy for animal welfare.
Our Queensland cousins are more tourism-savvy: a taxidermied Tonka (the celebrity wombat) greets visitors at Townsville's Museum.