Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary helps detect emerging diseases in wildlife across the country

You might describe them as “wildlife officers”.

Not only are they tasked with saving the lives of native animals, but the team at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Tasmania also collect valuable information on a range of species, some of which are unique to the state.

“We see 100 animals a month at the wildlife veterinary hospital and about 20 to 30 animals every week,” senior veterinarian Alex Kreiss said.

“About 90% of the cases we see are trauma-related and 10% are thought to be the result of infectious diseases or illnesses that are not related to humans.”

It’s the 10% of cases that are key to providing wildlife experts with information to help them better understand and treat emerging diseases in native wildlife in Tasmania and across the country.

An example of this is when several brushtail opossums started coming into the veterinary hospital with neurological signs, including incoordination, loss of balance, circling, and difficulty climbing.

The disease is called “wobbly possum” and was previously thought to be unique to opossums in New Zealand.

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary has joined a national wildlife monitoring program coordinated by Wildlife Health Australia.(Provided: Michael Eastwell)

“It was a disease we didn’t know we had in Tasmania and we certainly didn’t think it was widespread,” Mr Kreiss said.

Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary sent blood and tissue samples to try to find out more about how the disease was transmitted and how it affected the animal.

“Bonorong first detected the disease in Australia several years ago and worked with Biosecurity Tasmania to identify and investigate these cases, so their information was essential,” said Wildlife Health Australia national coordinator Tiggy Grillo.

Now the sanctuary is expanding its network and sharing capabilities after joining a national wildlife monitoring program coordinated by Wildlife Health Australia.

“We [at Bonorong] are part of a network of similarly oriented veterinary hospitals and clinics where we can share data and information,” said Matthew Clements, Veterinary Nurse at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.

A veterinarian works on a Tasmanian Devil lying sedated on a table.
Veterinary hospitals and clinics connect with others to compare notes and share knowledge.(Provided: Michael Eastwell)

There are 10 participating facilities, known as “sentinel clinics”, which monitor and track diseases that can affect animals, humans and livestock.

Significant finds are turned over to the federal government for further investigation.

“Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary is one of three clinics that recently joined the program, which will expand the geographic area,” Ms. Grillo said.

“[Wildlife Health Australia] seek to find data on as many species as possible and want to find information and findings that support the health of native species.

Mr Clements said that by having a range of groups collecting the data, there are more opportunities to share knowledge and detect disease.

And we are all encouraged to do our part to help protect native wildlife.

“If anyone notices an animal on the side of the road, it’s important to investigate and call the wildlife hotline and report it,” Kreiss said.

An echidna is held in a towel by a vet wearing blue scrubs.
All significant disease findings are forwarded to the federal government for further investigation.(Provided: Michael Eastwell)

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