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On the face of it, these two creatures —one cute, the other curious — appear to have little in common.

But both the wombat and the Red handfish are fighting for their lives and, thanks to the foresight and generosity of philanthropists, the University of Tasmania is bringing these endemic animals back from the brink.

With ancestral ties to Tasmania harking back to 1803, funding research to benefit Tasmanian wildlife was an obvious choice for the Harris Estate Charitable Foundation.  Founded by Gordon and June Harris in 1998, it is through the Foundation that their daughter Lyndal Brown and partner Peter continue her parents’ legacy and love of the environment.

In recognition of their significant support, the Foundation’s Lyndal Brown and Peter Jones were recently given a private tour of the University’s research facilities in Hobart, Tasmania, and had the chance to meet leading scientists.

They discovered how philanthropy is turning the tide when it comes to one of the world’s rarest fish.

Less than 10cm long and sporting hand-shaped fins, the Red handfish is an unusual looking creature found only in the waters of southern Tasmania. 

Fewer than 100 adult Red handfish are thought to survive in the wild, making it critically endangered.

With philanthropic support, researchers from the University’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) have raised and released 42 handfish hatchlings into the wild, marking an important conservation milestone.

“We’re incredibly appreciative of the public support for Red handfish conservation, which allows us to implement crucial strategies needed to halt their population decline,” said Dr Jemina Stuart-Smith, who leads the conservation efforts.

“We’re also grateful to be amid a community that values the preservation of these unique little sea creatures and supports efforts to tackle biodiversity loss.”

On land, wombats are facing their own challenges battling hair loss, skin thickening, and ultimately an excruciating death as a result of sarcoptic mange, which is believed to be transmitted when mites fall off one wombat and are picked up by another when they change burrows.

Treating animals in the wild made disease control extremely challenging, so the team at the University of Tasmania have been investigating long-lasting medications.

Results of their research have found a drug (Bravecto) can protect wombats for at least one to three months.  Previous treatments need to be administered every week for 8-16 weeks. 

“Sarcoptic mange causes such severe suffering to these animals, but I am heartened by the advances we have made in treating this disease in wild wombats,” said University of Tasmania wildlife disease ecologist Dr Scott Carver.

“Philanthropy has played a major role in helping our research to this point. 

“I am confident we will soon have simple and feasible tools to cure individual wombats and manage the disease in small populations, which will be a wonderful animal welfare and conservation success.”

This research is at the forefront of wildlife disease control and could have a global impact. More than 100 species of animals are impacted by mange, including koalas.

Lyndal and Peter said they appreciated the opportunity to meet with the research teams.

“Meeting with Scott and Jemina, seeing the work that they have done and how much still needs to be done certainly made us feel that our donations were being used for the benefit of the wombats and handfish,” Lyndal said.

Find out more about the Red handfish, and read about efforts to treat mange in wombats.

The Harris Estate Charitable Foundation is a Private Ancillary Fund managed by Equity Trustees.