Wandering Wombats

May 2006


Hiding underground in Central Queensland, Australia, are about 100 large, burrowing herbivores, called northern hairy-nosed wombats. While you are grimacing at this clumsy name, the quick-witted Australians are trying to find a new one. A sexier name may help raise both awareness and much-needed funds.  When Australia renamed the rabbit-eared bandicoot as “the bilby,” schoolchildren everywhere began raising money to “Save the Bilby.” One suggested new name for the NHN wombat is yaminon, an Aboriginal word for wombat. But for now, the NHN wombat is stuck with a cumbersome name, not unlike the creature’s gait. These solitary, nocturnal marsupials can grow up to a meter long and weigh 40 kg. The elusive NHN wombats spend most of their time in deep, cool burrows, protected from the Queensland sun.


Two other species of wombat also live in Australia, the common wombat and the southern hairy-nosed wombat. The common wombat is just that, common. No worries! The SHN wombats have suffered habitat destruction and are not strong in numbers, but are more plentiful than their northern cousins.  


During a trip to Australia in August 2003, I was invited to volunteer at the sole NHN wombat habitat by Alan Horsup, head of the NHN Wombat Recovery Program team, who works tirelessly to monitor the safety of the wombats while investigating methods to bring them back from the brink of extinction. The wombats live in a protected 3-square-kilometer area called Epping Forest National Park. The park is closed to the public and dingos. A fence was built along the periphery of the park four years ago after several precious young wombats became dingo meals.


During my volunteer week, my tasks were as exciting as they were varied. Here’s the short list: check the dingo fence for any damage, label new burrows, install small temperature and humidity gauges into burrows, install watering troughs, troubleshoot the weather station equipment, search for wombats during night patrols, help cook dinner and tea (lunch in Australia), and help with general camp clean-up. It’s not a vacation, it’s a job!


No one knows exactly how many NHN wombats are alive. It is estimated that only 35 of the 100 NHN wombats are female. Each year, the wombat team captures and counts as many wombats as possible and gives each an overall health-check. Specially-designed roomy cages are used to capture the wombats safely.


A major feature of the NHN wombat recovery plan is an international Wombat Foundation, established to raise awareness and funds. To join the foundation, learn more about the NHN wombats, and see pictures taken during my volunteer week, visit my NHN wombat website at http://www.darlynthomas.com/NHNWombats.htm.