Somewhat overshadowed by better-known Australian icons such as the kangaroo and koala bear, the humble wombat is a heavily built marsupial with short powerful legs and strong claws that are used to dig burrows where they spend much of their time. It is a nocturnal creature that primarily feeds on grass.
One of the unusual features of wombats lies with their teeth, which never stop growing, meaning that even an elderly one has very strong teeth, allowing it to grind food very finely.
Of the three living species of this creature, the northern hairy-nosed wombat is at most risk of extinction -- there are only about 115 left in the wild, all in just one locale, Epping Forest National Park in Central Queensland, according to a report from the BBC.
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.
Although all wombats are protected under Australian conservation laws, the marsupials face dire threats from bushfires, rifle-toting farmers, a deadly mite infection, predators like foxes and feral dogs, habitat destruction, competition with sheep, rabbits and cattle for grass grazing, and the inbreeding that has resulted from their dwindling numbers.
Many wombats have also been killed on highways by speeding automobiles, while the recurrence of droughts have led to the deaths of others.
The northern hairy-nosed wombat is listed as “critically endangered” under the Red-list of Threatened Species by the World Conservation Union, or IUCN.
The Wombat Foundation, which is committed to saving the northern hairy-nosed wombat from the brink of extinction, said that fences have been constructed around Epping Forest to project the few remaining wombats from predators, bushfires and human encroachment.
The foundation noted that in the early 1980s there were as few as 35 northern hairy-nosed wombats, but that figure climbed to about 138 by 2007, partly due to robust rainfall in the late 1990s at Epping Forest, which allowed the animals access to plenty of food.
In May 2009, the Queensland government cheered the rising, but still tiny, population of northern hairy-nosed wombats, which they said face a greater threat of extinction than either the giant panda ort the Sumatran tiger.
“This is a dramatic turnaround for an extremely vulnerable species in Queensland,” Climate Change and Sustainability Minister Kate Jones told parliament.
“It’s the largest population increase in more than 25 years of studying and helping the northern hairy-nosed wombat. It’s a testament to the wonderful efforts of our National Parks and Wildlife officers and the ... government’s commitment to protect our endangered species.
“We’ve created an environment where the wombat has thrived, which is a major milestone in our efforts to save this species from extinction,” Jones added.