Danger Down Under: Saving Koalas from Modern Threats

Inside an Australian wildlife hospital and koala sanctuary.

Oct. 14, 2010— -- They are the national mascot of Australia, and some of the cutest animals anywhere on the planet. But that may not be enough to save the koalas.

Their natural habitat is shrinking as suburban sprawl takes over. They're losing the trees they need for food and shelter. Living in close proximity to humans comes with a whole new set of risks.

In Queensland, Australia, I met a dedicated group of veterinarians and wildlife sanctuary workers who are doing their best to protect these sweet-natured animals.

Vets at the Australian Wildlife Hospital see the impact of urbanization on koalas every day. In the intensive care unit, signs posted on the cages of injured koalas indicate what kind of dangers the animals face. Cage after cage lists traumas like "dog attack" and "hit by car."

One doctor said that while 600 koalas a year are brought to their facility for treatment, only a third of them recover enough to return to the wild. That's a serious toll for a koala population estimated at no more than about 80,000 in all of Australia.

Deborah Tabart is the head of the Australian Koala Foundation and one of the animals' most tireless advocates. (Down Under, she's famous, known as "the koala woman.") She says these kinds of traumas multiplied in recent years as the human population expanded into areas where koalas once roamed free.

As she walked down a road that runs right through koala habitat, she pointed out how the animals frequently cross back and forth in search of food. "It's amazing how often they do it," she said. "And then one day, they get killed."

Modern threats are kept at bay at a koala sanctuary. Safe from the hazards of the outside world, koalas in the sanctuary are free to eat their fill of eucalyptus leaves, and sleep the day away.

"They sleep about 20 hours a day. And it's because they actually have to – the eucalyptus is so low in nutrients that it doesn't give them much energy," Tabart explained. "So you have to eat, then you have to rest, then you have to go find food again."

Living in Tough Conditions

Eucalyptus leaves are the only thing koalas eat. But as more and more of the trees are cut down for development, the animals face hunger, even starvation, and an increasing risk of disease.

"Koalas in the world are living in really tough conditions," Tabart said. She added they're absolutely at risk of extinction if more isn't done to protect them.

In some parts of Australia the koala population is on the verge of disappearing, but in other areas there are actually too many. Some scientists and politicians have come under fire for advocating a cull in overpopulated areas.

Who Are You Calling a Bear?

The cuddly creatures may look like living teddy bears, but koalas are not really bears at all – they are marsupials, in the same family as kangaroos. The mothers have pouches to carry their young.

A baby koala – known as a joey – is born the size of "a little jelly bean," Tabart said. "Then they climb up into the [mother's] pouch and stay there for about six months."

Once they get bigger, joeys spend another six months clinging to the mother's back and learning survival skills. Only then are they ready to make it on their own.

That's getting more and more challenging. But Deborah Tabart is doing her best to make sure these young koalas have a safe environment to grow up in – and someone to help when things go wrong.