Koalas are under threat in many areas across Australia. The situation in South East Queensland is particularly concerning as urban growth puts them under constant pressure. Every day these precious, iconic animals are under threat from habitat loss, cars, dogs, bush fire and disease.
Queensland Koala Crusaders, along with many other conservation organisations, is working hard to slow the escalating and rapid decline in Australia’s wild koalas. If nothing is done, extinction will result in the not-too-distant future.
Here is some information you might find helpful. Koalas are truly fascinating animals. We even have characteristics in common with them.
Sources - our thanks go to: Department of Environment and Heritage Protection, Koala Action Inc, Queensland Koala Crusaders, Moreton Bay Koala Rescue, Sunshine Coast Koala Rescue and other dedicated koala carers and hospitals who work to save them.
Koalas have been around for 30 million years and have changed little over that time, although their environment has altered dramatically.Their history is inextricably linked to that of the aboriginals who feature them in many Dreamtime stories going back 40,000 years. These revered stories feature closely observed behaviour and the koala is always given iconic status.
The scientific name for the koala is Phascolarctos cinereus meaning “pouched bear”, coined by early European naturalists who spotted koalas in the Blue Mountains. However koalas are not bears but marsupials, a subclass of mammals. They belong to a unique family group (Phascolarctidae) and only live in Eastern and Southern Australia. They are utterly unique and different to any other marsupial in this family.
The koala’s closest relative is the wombat.
Interesting fact: The word “koala” is thought to mean “no drink” in aboriginal language due to early observations that koalas did not leave their trees for water.
Under Queensland’s Nature Conservation Act 1992 koalas are listed as ‘Vulnerable’ (to extinction). In Victoria and South Australia the koala is simply a protected species and only offered minimal to no protection. Nationally, the Commonwealth Government listed the koala in Queensland, NSW and ACT as ‘vulnerable with threat of extinction’ in 2012. Aggressive clearing of all native bush land including eucalypt forests continues. The remaining eucalypt’s nutritional value has been tarnished by increased CO2 in the atmosphere leading to the IUCN listing the koala as one of the 10 most vulnerable species in the world to climate change.
It is thought that from an original population of millions at white settlement, only 50- 80,000 koalas remain in the wild. Numbers have dropped by approximately 80% in the past 10 years.
Interesting (and sad) fact: Numbers dropped dramatically during the early 1900s when 4 million koalas were hunted for their fur. Legislation stopped this in 1931.
Here’s a quote from the time by famous naturalist Ellis Troughton (1893-1974)
“A fellow feeling should make all Australians wondrous kind to the solemn little koalas, which should be granted perpetual free use of the trees as a national emblem, rather than butchered to make economic holidays.”
One might say nothing much has changed.
Koalas are unmistakable with their large round head, big furry ears, round brown eyes facing forward on the head (like ours!) and stout round body. Koalas do not have tails. Northern koalas have soft, light grey fur but koalas in Victoria and South Australia have thicker reddish-brown fur and insulating layers of fat to protect them from the harsher climate.
Queensland koalas are smaller, weighing in at 5-6 kg for females and 6-8 kg for males. In Victoria females are up to 8 kg and males up to 12 kg.
All koalas have white fur on the chest, inner arms, ears and bottom. Their nose and palms of their paws* have no fur. Bottoms are dappled to provide camouflage when roosting high in gum trees.
Their coats act as perfect rain coats and in heavy weather they will curl into a ball, bottom wedged into a tree fork, joey safely tucked inside and ride out the storm quite comfortably. In hot weather they can be seen dangling limbs from a tree branch to keep cool.
Koalas rely heavily on other senses rather than vision. Good hearing and an incredible strong sense of smell helps them detect predators, other koalas and helps them determine which koala food trees and leaves are most palatable and least toxic to their systems.
They have strong arms and legs with large feet and sharp claws for rapid vertical climbing. The fore paws have two opposable thumbs (and three fingers) for a good grip on tree trunks while strong back legs push them rapidly upwards. The back paws have no claw on the big toe and the 2nd and 3rd toes are fused as a grooming claw.
Interesting fact: Koalas have individual finger prints. Gorillas, orang-utans, chimpanzees and koalas are the only animals, besides humans, to have this unique feature.
Nb. Both images are koala front paws
Male koalas are more robust in size and can be identified by an easy to spot, strong smelling scent gland on their chest (sternum) which they rub on trees to mark territory. Female koalas are smaller with a white chest and a backward facing pouch to protect their pouched young from crumbling tree bark when climbing from tree to tree.
Interesting fact: Koala nose markings are unique and can be used for identification.
Koalas live in forests, open woodland and along watercourses where food trees are available. They have adapted to an urban lifestyle where habitat has been partially cleared. In Victoria they have adapted to living in blue gum plantations due to loss of all other habitat. Their distribution starts west of Cairns in North Queensland, all the way down to South Australia along the coastal side of mountain ranges. Koala populations are in rapid decline, particularly in SE Queensland and local extinctions are now frequent.
Although koalas are considered arboreal, or tree dwelling animals, they will walk on the ground to reach another tree. They rarely come to the ground to drink as the moisture they need usually comes from their diet of leaves. However, climate change and the increasing incidence of droughts has affected the water content in leaf, often requiring them to use dams, creeks and even puddles on roads to access water. On the ground they are vulnerable and can only use short bursts of speed to escape threats such as dogs, cars or people.
Interesting fact: When the temperature climbs koalas get cool. Trees have their own micro climate and trunks can be up to 8c lower in temperature than the surrounding hot air. The fur on a koala’s tummy is relatively thin so as a way to lower body temperature they sprawl on a branch, tummy down, and dangle their limbs to either side; more efficient than panting or licking and a great way to catch breezes and conserve moisture.
The koala diet is almost exclusively eucalyptus leaf of which they will eat a variety depending on availability and location. They do however eat some wattles, bottle brush as well as casuarinas and Melaleuca quinquinerva (a paper bark) used for medicinal digestive purposes. They need to consume about 500 gms of leaf a day. They will eat the several varieties prominent in their home range.
Eucalyptus is toxic to most creatures. The koala’s specialised digestive system isolates toxins in the liver and excretes them as waste. A joey in the pouch will feed on the female version of this specialised waste called “pap” at around 3 to 4 months of age to build the necessary bacteria to digest eucalyptus. As eucalyptus leaves are low on nutrients and hard work to eat, koalas are fairly sedentary, sleeping high in trees during the day and waking up to feed, mate and travel at night as well as at dawn and dusk.
Interesting fact: Koalas, particularly males, are often quite mobile during the day so look out for them, particularly during mating season.
Koalas are solitary animals living in overlapping networks of home ranges. Range size is dictated by the abundance of suitable food trees. An individual male will try to establish dominance over the home ranges of several females, fighting off other males. This is a noisy business as anybody who has camped in the bush during spring will attest.
Interesting fact: The male koala has one of the loudest calls on the planet.
Males begin to breed at 3 to 4 years of age and females at 2 years producing a joey every year. Birth of a tiny 2 cm jelly bean sized joey takes place after 35 days gestation between June and December in Queensland. The tiny joey clambers into its mother’s pouch and attaches to the smaller of one of two teats, where it will stay until emerging at about 6 months to ride on mum’s back and be taught how to survive in the bush. Young are weaned at 12 months and depart to establish their own home ranges after 2 years.
Koalas can live for up to 12 years in the wild but this is now rare with the increasing incidence of dog attack, disease, bush fire and car strikes.
Interesting fact: Twins are rare but do occur. Similarly, rare blue eyed koalas exist.
In the face of rapid urban development koalas face many obstacles on a daily basis.
- Habitat loss and fragmentation: loss of food, shelter and safe travel means a stressful life for a koala. It is the same for humans. The stress of losing a familiar “home” is thought to contribute to the increase in koala disease.
- Cars: development means home ranges get divided by roads. Hundreds of koalas a year are killed or injured by motor vehicle strikes in Queensland. This doesn’t account for the many injured koalas who recover in the hands of dedicated carers and vets. Driving slowly in wildlife areas and looking out for wildlife at dawn and dusk helps.
- Disease: Chlamydia is a bacterial infection carried by most koalas. The disease weakens the immune system under stress which leads to blindness and infertility. Symptoms such as swollen/pink eyes (conjunctivitis), chest infections and “wet” or “dirty” bottom (cystitis) from urinary tract infections are easily spotted in wild koalas whilst other koalas will carry this disease but show no clinical symptoms until examined.
Calling your closest carer, vet or sanctuary means the koala can be caught, examined and treated. Now a vaccine is available, some fortunate koalas can be inoculated against this disease before being returned to the wild. However, this vaccine is still being refined and tested on wild koalas and is not available to all koalas as yet.
A koala retro virus (KoRV), similar to HIV in humans, also affects koalas and suppresses their immune systems with horrific outcomes that include a range of cancers such as lymphoma and leukaemia resulting. Stress also impacts upon the immune system by reducing its effectiveness.
- Bush Fire (particularly high intensity burns): fragmented forests are fatal to koalas in bush fires. They have nowhere to go and whole colonies are wiped out. However some, remarkably, do survive and are cared for and rehabilitated by dedicated groups of carers. This is less of an issue in Queensland and Northern New South Wales, but has been devastating in Southern New South Wales, the ACT, Victoria and South Australia.
- Dogs: without appropriate wooden fencing or similar fauna-friendly fencing, koalas are easily trapped in urban back yards and many die from dog attack injuries. We all love our dogs and, with a little thought, dogs and koalas can cohabit. A few small adaptations to life with your dog can help. Confining your dog at night is a great start. Here are some popular misconceptions:
“My dog wouldn’t hurt a thing”:
Your dog may have never seen a koala and will feel threatened by the presence of such a strange animal. It will naturally attack.
“My dog would only play with it”:
Even a quick bite can kill a koala. Their skin is very soft and internal organs puncture easily. Shock is, of course, a high risk factor.
“It’s cruel to confine a dog”:
By restraining dogs at night, when koalas are most active, means that many attacks on wildlife can be avoided. Dogs enjoy the routine of being “put to bed” or “denned” at night.
“I want my dogs roaming free for protection”:
Unrestrained dogs can easy be baited or distracted. Your dog is safer at the house where he or she can guard you best.
“But I have a fence and no trees in my yard”:
Koalas climb the outside of fences to cross to other trees and get stuck in the yard with no way of escape. A tree branch propped against the fence will help.
“There’s plenty of bush for koalas at the end of the street”:
Unfortunately suburban gardens have become habitat as they connect to remnant bushland left behind when large tracts of habitat are destroyed.
Interesting fact: Dogs that help koalas? Yes. Specially trained “sniffer” (detection) dogs are used to find koala scat (poo) which helps scientists determine their usage of a particular stretch of habitat. These dogs react to the smell of koala droppings under trees. Queensland Koala Crusaders sponsors a beautiful and talented koala detection dog called Maya. Pay her Facebook page a visit by clicking here
Koalas drown in swimming pools if they tumble in when trying to drink during a drought. They can swim but will drown if they cannot get out of the pool. A tethered rope with a float gives a koala the chance to clamber out of the water.
Important fact: If a koala is drinking from a pool or obviously seeking water it may be unwell. Call your local koala rescue organisation for advice.
What to do if you see a koala or find a sick or injured koala.
First check the condition of the koala. Visually obvious symptoms such as lethargy, wasted condition, brown fur, a brown, wet, smelly dirty bottom, inflamed eyes or simply not responding to external stimuli and sitting on the ground indicate the need for medical attention. If you see these symptoms do not touch the koala, keep things quiet, alert your neighbours to tie up dogs and call a koala/wildlife rescue group for advice and, if possible, wait with the animal for help to arrive.
Emergency contact information for a sick or injured koala
RSPCA at 1300ANIMAL (1300 264 625) can advise on your nearest rescue group.
Some other regional options include:
South East Queensland
Australia Wildlife Hospital 1300 369 652 (emergency)
Daisy Hill Koala Ambulance (07) 3299 1032 or 0412 429 898 (day)
Moreton Bay Koala Rescue 0401 080 333 (24 hrs)
Redlands Wildlife Ambulance (07) 3833 4031 (night)
Sunshine Coast Koala Rescue 0423 618 740/0431 300 729 (24 hrs)
Wildcare (Gympie to Gold Coast) (07) 5527 2444 (24 hrs)
Wildlife Rescue Sunshine Coast 0432 310 556
Wildlife Volunteers Assc. Inc. (07) 5441 6200 (24 hrs)
Koala Care Fraser Coast (07) 4121 3146
Granite Belt Wildlife Carers 0418 144 073
Ipswich Koala Protection Society 07 5464 6274 or 07 3282 5035
Somerset Region Wildlife Rescue 0400 710 651
Warwick Wildlife Care & Rescue 0447 108 619
Fauna Rescue Whitsundays (07) 4947 3389
If the koala is injured, approach from behind and place a washing basket or cardboard box (or something similar with ventilation) over the animal to prevent it moving away and trying to climb a tree. If possible make sure the koala is in a quiet, stress-free shady place. For example, place an umbrella over the basket while you wait. Do not remove a joey from the pouch, even if the mother is dead. It is important for a vet to remove the joey from the teat. For your own safety do not touch or pick up a wild koala.
If your koala is healthy. Congratulations, this is a special experience. Make sure your visitor is safe and do report your sighting via the Koala Tracker website or via the Queensland Government’s Spot our Species App
A few simple things can make your garden koala friendly.
Trees: Contact your local nursery for advice on the correct koala food trees for your area. Plant a variety of native species including koala food trees, wattles, bottle brush as well as shrubs and ground cover to make moving between trees easy for koalas.
Keep old growth trees. It can take 100 years for a tree to become useful to wildlife.
Fencing: fences have become a major problem as they restrict fauna movement. Make your existing fencing koala-friendly by adding a pole for koalas to climb up and over. If building new fencing use timber posts and rails with a plank along the top of the fence to be used as a walkway. Talk to your neighbour about a pole on each side so koalas have easy access from each side of the fence.
Pool: koala-proof pool fencing (eg. glass) or a tethered rope with a float in the water to help koalas climb out.
Dogs: keep them inside, tethered when in the yard, or restricted to a special area.
Watch from a distance and enjoy your special visitors.