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Cuddly koalas face uncertain future

Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Savaged by a dog, Bruzer, a young male, recuperates from surgery at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, where hundreds of koalas are treated every year for injuries inflicted by dogs or automobiles. With his facial bones crushed, Bruzer succumbed to infection and complications after veterinarians tried to repair his sinuses.

Troubled koalas find themselves inside the pages of the May edition of National Geographic magazine. Photographs by Joel Sartore.

The koala, cuddly symbol of a nation and one of the most beloved animals on the planet, is in crisis. Before Europeans settled Australia more than two centuries ago, about ten million koalas lived in a 1,500-mile-long swath of the east coast eucalyptus forests. Hunted for their luxurious fur, koalas were brought to the edge of extinction in the southern half of their range. In the northern half, Queensland, a million were killed in 1919 alone. After the last open season in Queensland was held in 1927, only tens of thousands remained.

Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Up a tree in Petrie, a town north of Brisbane, a female koala watches photo assistant Jess Hooper approach with a basket to drop on her if she comes down before rescuers arrive. Koalas often return to trees they consider their territory, says rescuer Megan Aitken, "even if those trees are now in somebody's front yard."

 

Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Wielding a blanket, Megan Aitken of the Moreton Bay Koala Rescue team bundles a young male that was hit by a car. Development in prime koala habitat makes such scenes inevitable, she says, while the government ignores the warnings: "If koalas aren't protected, we're looking at local extinction within five years."

Through the next half century their numbers slowly rebounded, in part due to efforts to relocate and recolonize them. Then urbanization began to take its toll. Habitat was lost, and diseases spread. With urbanization came the threat of dogs and highways. Since 1990, when about 430,000 koalas inhabited Australia, their numbers have dropped sharply. Because surveys are difficult, current population estimates vary widely—from a low of 44,000 by advocacy groups to a high of 300,000 by government agencies. More than a decade ago a survey of the Koala Coast, a 93,000-acre region in southeastern Queensland, estimated a koala population of 6,200; today there are believed to be around 2,000.

Joel Sartore/National Geographic

With no place to hide, koalas are being squeezed out of Queensland communities like North Lakes that 20 years ago were farmland and wildlife habitat. Hunted ruthlessly in the early 20th century, koalas were later protected and made a modest recovery. Today their numbers are again in steep decline.

“Koalas are getting caught in fences and dying, being killed by dogs, struck by vehicles, even dying simply because a homeowner cut down several eucalyptus trees in his backyard,” says Deidré de Villiers, one of the chief koala researchers at the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. For 15 years de Villiers, 38, has been tracking koalas, monitoring populations, studying the reasons for their decline, and creating guidelines to make development more koala-friendly.

Joel Sartore/National Geographic

Killed in a single week by cars or dogs, these koalas were mourned at the vet clinic that tried to save them. During "trauma season," from July to December, when the animals descend to the ground in search of mates and new food trees, a dozen or so injured koalas a week are brought to the clinic. (To protect the identity of confidential sources, the yellow label at left has been blurred.)

National Geographic

May 2012 cover of National Geographic

De Villiers insists that koalas and humans can coexist in urban environments “if developers get on board with koala-sensitive designs,” such as lower speed limits for streets, green corridors for koala movement, and, most especially, preserving every precious eucalyptus tree.

Full story and more photos on nationalgeographic.com and in the May edition available on newsstands and on the iPad.