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Misunderstood Koalas

I say Australia, you say kangaroos, sun, surfing, and - that’s right – koalas. They are only found in parts of Australia, high up the trees, hiding in the eucalyptus forest and yet they are iconic. While they are not (yet) classed as endangered, they are still threatened by human activity and numbers are decreasing.

Koalas are very misunderstood animals. For one, they are often referred to as “koala bears” when they have no relation to bears and are more closely related to wombats or kangaroos. They are marsupials, carrying their young in a pouch for up to seven months until they are mature, which is when the joey travels on its their mother’s back until it is about a year old.

flickr | Liz LawleyKoalas also seem like cuddly stuffed animals, when in reality their claws are sharp and could scratch just by trying to hold on to you. After all, they use those claws to climb up and down the trees and hold on while they are asleep high up in the gum trees. Yes, they do come down to travel from one tree to another and can even swim across rivers to escape flooding in an area.

Koalas are spread mainly across Eastern Australia and can live in both tropical and colder climates; their survival depends on finding a territory with sufficient food available. Finding said area however isn’t easy. A koala’s home range is about 100 hectares of bushland and about half of it should be covered in eucalyptus. Eucalyptus leaves are a very low nutrition diet, meaning koalas sleep for most of day – about eighteen to twenty hours. Therefore their food has to be within easy reach. Although there are over six hundred species of eucalyptus trees, koalas only feed on about ten of them. In a day, they will eat about a kilo (two and a half pounds) of leaves and move as little as possible to forage to save energy.

flickr | Forest and Kim StarrLiving on a smaller patch of land is possible, but unsustainable in the long term, which is why habitat loss is one of the greatest threats. Land clearing, bushfires and general human development fragment koala habitat. 80 per cent of their habitat has already disappeared. Not only is a smaller home range unsustainable, but it is a dangerous life. The animals will still try to travel to new areas and travelling on the ground is treacherous: It takes a lot of energy; they have to cross roads and could be hit by cars or killed by other animals. Roads are not part of their natural habitat and they can’t easily adapt to it. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that each year, around 4,000 koalas are killed by cars and dogs.

flickr | Wayne ButterworthOther risks to the koala population are the diseases introduced into forests (through new homes and developments) which animals aren’t immune to. Additionally, eucalyptus trees are affected by the temperature rise related to climate change. When it gets hotter, eucalyptus trees aren’t as full as they once were, meaning they don’t offer as much shade as koalas need.

It may seem as though the threats facing koalas are no greater than the palm oil crisis endangering Orangutans or fishing and whaling going on in various parts of the world, putting at risk a high number of marine animals; the only difference being that koalas are not yet  in immediate danger. The population numbers are still high enough to keep them off the endangered species list as long as action is taken to conserve these animals and their habitat.

If you are interested in helping koalas, take a look at Frontier’s new Koala and Conservation project in South Australia.

By Claire Herbaux -Online Journalism Intern

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