Protecting Australia’s koalas

Added On December 12, 2013

They’re cute, they’re cuddly and they’re in trouble.

Over the last decade, Koala numbers have been swiftly and silently plummeting.

In many ways the koala is emblematic of the issues facing Australia’s unique native wildlife.

It's a treasured national icon under threat from all sides, but there is no consistent or comprehensive approach to protect it.

LIFESTYLES has more.

As rampant development continutes to destroy and fragment the Koala's habitat, only a handful of underfunded and passionate Australians stand between the Koala and an uncertain future.

One of them is Australia's former Environment Minister, Tony Burke. He's a man who has made a difference in the silent battle to save the Koala. And he found inspiration from an unlikely ally – the Panda.

SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH) TONY BURKE, Former Environment Minister
"It was only last year that as environment minister I had to put the koala on the threatened species list something that we thought would never happen but for Queensland and NSW and Canberra we have a chronic shortage in the number of koalas than we used to have and the work that China has done in creating sanctuary areas with the panda provide a bit of guidance with what we will increasingly have to look at with the koala."

Dr. Matthew Crowther is a senior lecturer at the school of biological sciences at the University of Sydney. He agrees that Burke’s  determination to list the Koala represented a turning point in the marsupial's decline.

"Well what happened in 2012 when they were listed by the commonwealth government because they were listed in NSW in some populations in Queensland but now their listed at the commonwealth that’s the tipping point - now we’re realizing these koalas are declining they are a threatened species - the problem is now we’re also looking at a tipping point in science and conservation where its not been as funded as much as it should be so we’re looking at these issues if we don’t do this, if we don’t keep the people working on koalas and identifying the threats because we still have a lot to know about the individual requirements that koalas have,  we will start seeing even more declines and we’re seeing rapid declines throughout  their range already."
Wild koalas are found from west of Cairns in Far North Queensland right down into South Australia. The vast majority of Koalas live on the coastal side of the mountain ranges going down into Victoria. But deforestation is taking its toll.
SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH) TONY BURKE, Former Environment Minister
"The threat to them is loss of habitat the old principal you don’t have to be going after a species to cause a problem, if you take away its habitat it has nowhere to live and their numbers start to fall dramatically and once those numbers come down you have by definition a smaller gene pool which makes the species increasingly vulnerable."
Dr Crowther is as close as Australia gets to a Koala crusader. He stumbled upon the unthinkable while doing research in New South Wales.

"Well I became interested when I worked with the NSW state government a couple of years ago, people were concerned that koala started declining in number well they had declined over a while but we wanted to know their status and we found yes they had significantly declined."

Koalas rely on quality eucalyptus, which means quality soil – but competition for land is fierce.

"Unfortunately these are also the soils we need for our agriculture and then when you move that along to what’s happened to Australia that’s also the area that’s been cleared for development where people live now."

Dr Crowther says the Koala is facing a perfect storm of threats – all stemming from man’s encroachment on Australia’s once vast, pristine eucalypt forests.

"The key threats well loss of habitat, loss of tree loss, loss and fragmentation of their habitats so they don’t have enough trees for food and also their shelter requirements because we’ve found they need trees for shelter from the heat from fedation and dogs. So you combine that with fragmentation of the habitat you put roads in they die by cars peoples dogs will kill them as well the fire threat put them altogether as well throw in disease the top because they’re crowded together we enter what we call an extinction vortex."

And one element in that vortex is distinctly human.

In people, chlamydia is a common sexually transmitted disease. A different strain infects koalas, but it too can be spread sexually, and it's causing a devastating epidemic.

In some parts of Australia, koala infection rates are as high as 90 per cent.

Chlamydia affects male and female koalas, and even the little ones called joeys - causing blindness and infertility in koalas - and can be fatal.

In part thanks to Crowther’s work, the focus is shifting from combatting distinct threats, to seeking one simple goal – protecting Koala habitat.

"what the problem is if they have nowhere to live so you can breed as much as you want but if you’re dying because getting hit by cars, attacked by dogs, getting disease, fires killing you, as well as you've just not got anywhere to go especially in heat we're finding now the heatwaves are increasing and that’s killing koalas because they cant get their food and nutrient requirements and they just die so they’ll sit at the bottom of trees and die so you combine these altogether and that’s the problem for koalas  it’s the habitat so you combine these all together and that’s the problem for koalas the reproductive side of it, they’re fine it’s the habitat they need to survive." 
The koala gets its name from an ancient Aboriginal word meaning "no drink" because it receives over 90 percent of its hydration from the Eucalyptus leaves (also known as gum leaves) it eats, and only drinks when ill or times when there is not enough moisture in the leaves, which, as Australia warms, is becoming more and more regularly.

With bushfire season already hammering much of Australia’s eastern seaboard, climate change poses its own set of problems.

"Also what we need to do is because it is getting hotter we are getting heatwaves and that’s kills them we have to maintain the trees that we have particularly old trees they use for shelter we also have to create networks of trees so we’ve got to plant more trees so they have trees in the future maintain the trees we have particularly old trees … so we got to plant more trees so they have more trees in the future as well as keep the trees we have so that’s the main thing."

However, when extinction comes knocking, it helps to be one of nature’s great celebrities.

SOUNDBITE (ENGLISH) TONY BURKE, Former Environment Minister
"Because they’re so iconic because when people see a panda they think of china people see a koala they think of Australia. Because of that deep connection that runs not just into the hearts of the people that live in each country bit into the hearts of people around the world when they think of each country it gives us an opportunity to really rally behind turning these things around."

Its global status as wildlife rockstar gives the koala an edge over the multitude of fragile Australian animals facing similar threats, but lacking the PR punch enjoyed by Koalas.

Which makes breeding zoos and their work so important.

"Now what you don’t see everyday even here at Wildlife Sydney Zoo is a sugar-glider, now this is fully grown, I think this one is called Popcorn, Popcorn is fully grown they can jump up to fifty metres from tree to tree because they’ve got lining here that allows them to glide now they’re extraordinary little animals and this is one of the few places in Australia that is looking after them and helping them get back into wildlife conditions I’ll just let popcorn keep eating that grape and get out of here."

In the heart of Sydney, the Wildlife Sydney Zoo is working hard to emulate the Panda sanctuaries of Sichuan and the outreach programs that see Pandas breeding in far off places like the Adelaide Zoo in South Australia

"So here we are in the Sydney CBD you wouldn’t believe it but I’m surrounded by koalas at wildlife Sydney Zoo I’ve got Bruce above me and little blinky bill to my right - who smells fantastic - we’ve got Justine one of Sydney’s most expert koala experts and were going to talk to her a little bit about what these guys are up to."

Justine Powell is part of a wildlife Sydney zoo team that works round the clock, nurturing and providing for an animal that sleeps 20 hours a day and remains apparently blissfully unaware of the dangers it faces.

"Unfortunately for koalas they’re not doing too well out in the wild but you do have Zoo institutes like ourselves that we have breeding programs and you can help bring up the numbers for the koala population so habitat destruction is definitely the main key for them."

Koalas live for around 12 years in the wild and longer in captivity. According to Justine, each one is unique in its own quirky, slothful way.

"They have all their own different personalities that’s for sure so you have a look at Syd here - he definitely loves to sleep just like all the other koalas - but some of them will sniff over have a look at what’s going on and some others they also like to sleep a little bit longer. (And do you form personal relationships with them, are they affectionate?) Not so much affectionate but they do know we are here we take photos with them so people do come in and meet them quite closely and they’ve been raised here in captivity and then know people are definitely they’re friends."

"One thing is certain that despite years of research and funding sourced from all over the world so little is really known about the way koalas make their decisions in the wild and 2012 being such an important watershed year for these species the question is where will koalas be in 20 years from now."

"(Can you imagine an Australia without koalas?) Well it would be a difficult thing to do because they’re an iconic species they’re actually one of our main sources of tourism incomes there was a study a few years ago showing why do people come to Australia right at the top of the list was to see koalas from a cultural point of view and a tourism point of view part of our heritage point of view you cant lose them."

Happily, Koalas like Bruce and Blinky Bill, remain utterly and totally unaware, sleeping through the apocalypse in true Aussie style.