Effective Koala conservation is actually quite simple but may appear complex to the layperson. Koalas are declining in some Australian states yet are an apparent problem in others - what to make of this? Unfortunately, most of the complexity arises from uncertainty brought about by poor science in the first instance, but also by deliberate misinformation. Rather than dwelling on the debate, we thought it best to provide some information in the form of FAQs (see below).
What are koalas really like?
Despite what you may have heard or seen on television, koalas are innately gentle animals. At the population level, they live their lives in a matrix of overlapping home range areas that vary in size depending on the quality of habitat they are living in (measured in terms of the density of preferred food tree species), the animal's sex and social status. Key food tree species vary throughout the species range but not within botanical provinces. Koalas also vary in size from north to south, the weights of alpha-males increasing from 9-11kg to 13-15kg respectively.
A koala's home range contains everything it needs to survive from year to year - food, shelter and other koalas for breeding purposes. Left to their own devices and with minimal disturbance, adult koalas will live in their respective home ranges for long periods of time, sometimes their entire lives.
Can koalas live with humans?
Yes they can, as long as we are prepared to respect and meet their basic needs for survival - retention of preferred food tree species, protection from dogs and cars, and minimal restrictions on movement through their respective home range areas. Now that's not too much to ask is it? Koala Beach on the Tweed Coast on NSW is a good example of what can be achieved.
Are koalas endangered?
This is a difficult question to answer simply. If we consider the word endangered to mean in imminent danger of extinction then no, the koala is not endangered and will likely be around for decades to come. There is no argument however, that the distribution of koalas throughout their historical range in eastern Australia has been much reduced by human activities, so much so that they are officially listed as a "Vulnerable" species throughout NSW and in the southeast Queensland bioregion. Habitat loss (and therefore population decrease) is also ongoing despite a raft of legislation and planning policies in states such as NSW and Queensland. Elsewhere, Victoria and South Australia don't appear to care too much about koalas and sadly see them as more of a problem than the national treasure that they really are.
What about disease?
Unravelling the relationship between koalas and the intra-cellular bacterium Chlamydia has been the focus of research for many years now. More recently a endogenous Koala retrovirus (KoRV) has also been identified, further complicating our understanding of the epidemiology of disease in free-ranging koala populations. In undisturbed populations, disease appears to be a relatively minor issue, although the majority of animals in the population will invariably be hosting both Chlamydia and KoRV. Again, disturbance (usually by humans) appears to be a key factor in the onset of clinical symptoms and/or morbidity.
What about the overbrowsing problems we hear about?
Koalas have unfairly borne the brunt of poor land management practices in the southern states (Victoria and South Australia) by being identified as the singular cause of defoliation by overbrowsing of Eucalypt trees in the Manna Gum complex. Don't you think its interesting that the problem populations in each instance are those that have been deliberately introduced by humans? Suffice to say that the issue is certainly not as simple as some people would have you believe. In fact, its a complex ecological equation that involves not just koalas, but also fire and water. "Can the imbalance on places like Kangaroo Island be rectified?", you might ask. Yes it can, but not the way that government agencies in both Victoria and South Australia are going about addressing the problem.