They sleep an average of 20 hours, and subsist on less than two pounds of gum leaves per day. Yet an absence of natural predators and extremely low metabolic demands may not be enough to keep Australia’s koala population alive into the next century.
Development along Australia’s coast is destroying the gum forests that koalas call home, and with the encroaching suburbs has come a population of dogs and cars that alternately munch on, and flatten, the bear-like marsupials. On top of all this, the past few years have ushered in the worst drought in Australian history, igniting a series of bushfires that have further destroyed koala habitat. If current trends continue, some experts predict that koalas will disappear altogether within the next ten years.
Koala populations have rebounded once already from human assaults. In the 1920s, koalas were hunted to near-extinction to satisfy a growing demand for their furs. In one of the earliest examples of “charismatic megafauna’s” political clout, koala hunting was eventually outlawed in the 1930s, but the descendents of those few surviving koalas have been plagued by disease and deformities as the result of low genetic diversity.
More alarming still is the notion that koalas are only the first of many Australian species that will be threatened by climate change and suburban development. As Erna Walraven, senior curator at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo, told the Agence France Presse, koalas are an indicator of the wider health of the Australian bush. “I think that the koala is in there with a big suite of other species, native Australian icons, that are under threat,” says Walraven.
Wallabies, wombats and bandicoots beware.