'It's lawless': Distraught carer's fears for rescued wombats after being released

Warning disturbing content: After six years raising orphaned and sick wombats, a Victorian woman was devastated to learn a “legal loophole” is allowing the animals she lovingly releases back into the wild to be shot.

Shelley Stafford loves wombats - the registered wildlife carer spends six hours a day caring for them at Narbeview Wildlife Shelter, in Murrindindi Shire, 70km north of Melbourne.

Allegations a Chinese businessmen was organising wombat hunts near her home left Ms Stafford angry, but when she started digging, she discovered a “brutal” approach entrenched by authorities.

Wildlife carer Shelley Stafford with wombats she cares for. Source: Narbeview Wildlife Shelter

“When I first heard I said to my mum ‘we’re beating our heads against the walls,’” Ms Stafford told Yahoo News Australia.

“When you find them do you just put them down?

“Is it better than having them shot or maimed?”

Wombats in the ‘too hard basket’

While the iconic species are under strict legislation throughout most of Australia, Victorian law gives them virtually no protection across parts of the state.

In 193 Victorian parishes - located in areas where wombats are most common - the animals can be killed by landholders at their discretion.

However in the wake of recent reports of organised foreign hunting groups, calls are growing to revisit the decision.

Dr Clive Marks from Nocturnal Wildlife Research was once a Victorian government insider, tasked in 1998 to examine methods of killing wombats, but now he is speaking out.

A wombat awaits his fate upon release. Source: Narbeview Wildlife Shelter

“Realistically, there is no active monitoring or enforcement of the currently very opaque rules governing their treatment,” he said.

“Today they are classified as “unprotected wildlife” in much of eastern Victoria, which is a legislative 'too hard basket' that delivers no real wildlife management strategy.”

‘It’s eating my garden and I’m going to shoot it’

Wildlife carer, Ms Stafford alleges she sometimes sees dead wombats burning in piles at a local orchard and often finds animals that have died of infection after non-lethal shots to the rump.

“We get many a rescue call from people saying a wombat is eating my garden and I’m going to shoot it if you don’t come and get it,” Ms Stafford said.

Two wombats in the care of Shelley Stafford. Source: Narbeview Wildlife Shelter

While Ms Stafford consents to regular government inspections to ensure she is raising her wombats humanely, she has seen little evidence that the same rules apply to people wanting to shoot them.

“Why do I have all these legalities when they aren’t protected?” she said.

“I don’t understand - that’s what I don’t understand.”

‘Out of sight, out of mind’

Evan Quartermain from Humane Society International told Yahoo News Australia that Authority to Control Wildlife (ATCW) orders allowed for 3,830 Victorian common wombats to be killed in 2018, but the number of animals shot in the 193 unregulated parishes is unknown.

“They’re shot on private property which is out of sight and out of mind,” he said.

“There are several intervention points before a bullet to the head should even remotely be considered.

“Permits are issued far too flippantly - it’s open season for wombats.”

Federal minister Jason Wood said many people in his multicultural constituency let him know they are horrified by the way wombats are treated in Victoria.

“It’s a lawless society when it comes to killing wombats in Victoria,” he said.

An injured wombat in the arms of Shelley Stafford. Source: Narbeview Wildlife Shelter

‘We’re reviewing the rules’

In Victorian parliament today, state member for Prahran Sam Hibbins called on the Victorian environment minister Lily D'Ambrosio to take immediate action to limit the killing of wombats.

“Today, I called on the Minister to act and declare them a protected species across the state,” he later said.

In a statement issued to Yahoo News Australia, a government spokesperson pointed towards a review of wildlife hunting laws.

“We need to make sure wombats, like all wildlife in Victoria, are adequately protected – that’s why we’re reviewing the rules to ensure the protection of wombat populations,” it read.

A spokesperson from the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning issued a further statement.

“It is an offence to kill, take, control or harm wildlife under the Wildlife Act 1975 without authorisation. It is also an offence to use poisons to kill, destroy or take wildlife,” it read.

“The maximum penalty for illegally hunting, taking or destroying wildlife ranges from $8,059 to $38,685 and/or six to 24 months’ imprisonment.

“To report information relevant to this case or other cases of wildlife crime, contact Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000 or online at crimestoppersvic.com.au.”

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