In search of Australia's treasured koala

Koala and joey

Koala and joey – Image courtesy Wikipedia Author: benjamint444 (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Wikipedia kicked off New Year's Day 2024 by choosing Australia’s treasured koala as their featured article of the day.

With Australia facing potentially catastrophic bushfires this summer like the 2019–2020 season, one of its favourite animals, the koala, is under threat on a number of other fronts as well. As Global Voices reported in March 2022, the national icon has been declared a threatened species. Loss of habitat and diseases, such as Chlamydia, are just two of the threats.

Fears for the future of the koala are not new. The documentary, “Is the Koala Doomed for Extinction” is from 1962:

Obviously, a few things have to be updated since 1962 — for instance, the reference to bears in the YouTube title. Koalas are not bears. They are herbivorous (plant-eating) marsupials with a diet of eucalyptus leaves and pouches for rearing their young joeys. They spend most of their time in trees, sleeping up to 20 hours a day. When necessary, they do walk between them.

Although I’ve seen dozens of koalas in the wild in the last three-quarters of a century, I can’t remember the last time. It used to be common to see them in trees along the sides of country roads. As well as sightings in forests and national parks, their loud grunts were often heard at night in places such as the Grampians National Park in Victoria.

Despite the Giant Koala's presence at the gateway to the Grampians, there are very few of the animals left in the park.

Giant Koala – Image courtesy Flickr user Knitspirit (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED)

The presence of two koalas in 2020 brought some joy:

Two koalas have been found in the Grampians in one of the first documented sightings in six years.

The rare find has been described as “fantastic” by Parks Victoria.

A member of Project Platypus Upper Wimmera Landcare spotted the sleepy marsupials, whose numbers were decimated by disease in the 1990s in the region.

Politicians are often photographed holding a koala when visiting Oz. This photo-op of Barack Obama in 2014 is typical:

President Obama holding a koala

President Obama Holds a Koala – Official White House Photo by Pete Souza (CC BY 3.0 US DEED)

If you’re thinking of raising one as a pet, the University of Queensland’s Performance Lab has this warning: Koalas Are Not Cute And Cuddly.

In fact, there has been lots of online discussion over the years about humans catching the sexually transmissible infection (STI) Chlamydia from koala urine. This Reddit thread has caused lots of chatter: “Did he cheat or did I catch an STD from a koala?? Update- He cheated…”

Apparently, celebrities can stop worrying. According to University of Sydney Ph.D. student Luke Silver:

…fortunately you are unable to catch Chlamydia from holding or touching a koala as the species which infects koalas is different from the species which infects humans.

Australian Bryce Stewart is a marine ecologist and fisheries biologist currently residing in the United Kingdom. He was lucky enough to spot one during a recent holiday down under:

In fact, Bryce reports seeing two near Inverloch in eastern Victoria.

There are several websites that record crowd-sourced sightings. The Queensland government environment department has an app as well. The sightings are recorded on a map on their webpage, with images available if provided by the source.

Not only is there an International Wild Koala Day each May, but September is also Save the Koala Month, with the last Friday being Save the Koala Day. There are numerous non-government organisations and websites promoting the future of this iconic species. Friends of the Koala claims to “have one goal: to save koalas from extinction.” Their online documentary is promoted in this YouTube trailer:

The World Wildlife Fund-Australia has ten interesting facts about the species. For those wanting to help save this down under favourite, WWF also has an Adopt a Koala program.

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