April 5, 2001 -- Koalas were once nearing extinction in Australia. Now, they are reproducing so quickly that they are outgrowing their natural habitat and starving to death.
"It's very serious," says Scott Buckingham, a naturalist and head of the Koala Rescue Foundation. "We have a Koala plague on our hands."
The rapidly expanding koala population — their numbers are doubling every three years — is stripping Australia's nature preserves of eucalyptus trees, the animals' only food source. At this reproduction rate, the koala population will outpace the growth of new trees, and the vegetation will be overwhelmed. As the forests die, the koalas will starve, as many already are.
Not the First Time
"We caused the problem, we've got to fix it," says Buckingham, referring to the koalas' history with human intervention.
In the early 1900s, koalas were nearly hunted to extinction. Shocked by the mass slaughter, the government began relocating the remaining koalas to isolated forests and island preserves. There, away from predators and surrounded by groves of eucalyptus trees, the koalas staged a phenomenal recovery.
But the well-intentioned wildlife plan has gone awry. When conservationists relocated the koalas to small preserves, they failed to predict their habitats would soon be surrounded by urban development and farms. Now, trapped inside their tiny territories, the koalas have begun to literally eat themselves out of house and home. After eating all they could in the forest, they invaded the few gum trees on nearby farms.
With the original conservation plan in tatters, some have suggested shooting koalas to thin out the population, a measure that is not only drastic, but also illegal.
So the koalas continue to be relocated to new habitats, as they are also being surgically sterilized. But not everyone approves of this method.
Deborah Tabart of the Australia Koala Foundation believes that instead of sterilizing koalas, the government should be planting more trees.
"In 10 years' time, when there's no babies and there's no more animals," she says, "what are we going to do then?"
But some are betting on an innovative alternative to killing or sterilizing. A team of researchers is experimenting with a reproductive vaccine that works like the human birth control pill. By eliminating the koala's egg cells, they can make it through a breeding season without becoming pregnant.
Perhaps, scientists say, this process holds future promise for regulating the koala population, without forced relocations, starving or killing.