Far less famous than the iconic kangaroo or eminently lovable koala, Australia’s wombats are in dire straits – and I don’t mean the band, though there is a band called The Wombats from Liverpool, England, the home of the Beatles. But never mind all that – Australia’s wombats are in trouble.

If I haven’t confused you already, wombats are stocky, furry four-legged creatures which resemble big marsupial muskrats or overgrown guinea pigs. Like badgers, they use their powerful bodies and sharp claws to dig up their food, though unlike badgers their diet is plant-based. They have a backwards-facing pouch, are chiefly nocturnal and like to take their time with things, though if threatened they can sprint about as fast as Usain Bolt.

Common wombat in the wild, pic: mikeccross (Flickr CC)

Despite legal protection, common wombats are considered pests by some Australian farmers and are sometimes killed by them (the government still issues permits to do so). They also suffer from mite infections, road accidents, droughts, bush fires, and competition from both domesticated and feral invasive species, from rabbits and sheep to wild dogs and foxes.

One species, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, is critically endangered, with estimates of 115 wild examples in existence –mostly in Queensland’s Epping Forest. And that figure is a dramatic increase from the 1980s, when there were only around 35. Such small numbers inevitably result in inbreeding, another threat to their population.

From the International Business Times:

The northern hairy-nosed is the largest wombat — it can grow to more than 1 meter (3.3 feet) in length and weigh up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds). The other species, the bare-nosed (or common) wombat and the southern hairy-nosed wombat are faring slightly better.

Aboriginal myths abound with varying stories about wombats, some positive, some less flattering.

From BBC News:

According to one story, the wombat was once a giant, who dared to boast he was more powerful than the sun. After a contest of might, however, the wombat lost, and so today hides from shame, deep down in a burrow. But another Aboriginal story tells of how wise the wombat can be. He comforts the other animals in the forest, after their friend, a cockatoo, has died, explaining to them all about forest spirits.

The northern hairy-nosed wombat is in fact more endangered than the giant panda or the Sumatran tiger. Their survival may rest in the hands of conservation groups like the Wombat Foundation and the protection of their habitats in Epping Forest and Richard Underwood Nature Refuge, also in Queensland.

Baby common wombat, pic: Will Keightley (Flickr CC)