Endangered Species Handbook

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Trade

Koalas

     The loveable Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) of Australia, which never recovered from killing by the fur trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries that nearly caused its extinction, is now in decline again.  Symbol of Australia's national airline, Qantas, and one of the most famous and popular animals in the world, it is threatened by a variety of factors, including logging, urban development, and disease.  Prior to European colonization of Australia, Koalas numbered in the millions in eucalyptus forests from Queensland in the north to Victoria in the south (Phillips 1994).  Koalas date back at least 14 million years, having evolved in rainforests that once covered large portions of Australia.  Although climatic change turned much of Australia into desert, their range in 1800 still covered millions of square miles in a continuous forest zone (Phillips 1994).  These slow-moving marsupials became quite specialized in their diets, feeding mainly on about 32 of the 500 species of eucalyptus trees native to Australia; but within this habitat, they thrived (Dayton 1991). 
 
     Beginning in the 19th century, Koalas were hunted mercilessly by European settlers for their soft fur pelts and were entirely helpless in the face of guns and dogs.  The major means used by professional hunters were poisoning and snaring, and by the late 19th century, 300,000 Koala pelts a year were being shipped to the London fur market (Phillips 1994).  By the early 20th century, they were almost eliminated in the southern half of the country and became extinct in South Australia in the early 1930s.  In 1898, legislation was passed in Victoria to attempt to stem the killing, but it was not enforced (Phillips 1994).  In 1908, 57,933 Koala pelts were exported, and hunting spread to Queensland; beginning in 1915, year-round hunting was allowed (Phillips 1994).  The U.S. fur trade sold millions of Koala pelts during the 1920s; from 1919 to 1921, 208,677 Koala pelts were sold in the U.S. fur trade, along with more than 7 million Australian opossum and wallaby pelts, according to a study by two American Museum of Natural History biologists, Henry Fairfield Osborn and Harold Anthony (1922).  After signs of depletion and public outcry, the Queensland government closed the hunting season in 1921, but commercial pressure resulted in a re-opening of hunting five years later. In a one-month season in 1927, 584,738 Koalas were killed and their pelts sent to the United States (Phillips 1994).  This was the last year of hunting.  The U.S. market was finally shut down at this time when President Herbert Hoover, who had worked in the gold fields of Western Australia, signed an order permanently prohibiting the importation of both Koala and Wombat skins, an order that remains in effect today (Phillips 1994). 
 
     Populations of these animals had been devastated, however.  Extinct in South Australia, they numbered only about 200 in New South Wales by 1940 and a few thousand in Victoria.  In Queensland, perhaps 10,000 or more Koalas survived, but they declined when millions of acres were cleared for construction and road-building (Phillips 1994).  Fragmentation of their habitat throughout their range has played a role in preventing them from returning to former abundance (Phillips 1994). 
 
     Even in the 1990s, a time when public sympathy for Koalas had grown considerably along with an awareness of their habitat needs, the government of New South Wales granted a massive woodchip contract to a multinational company, Boral, which may level every native forest left in the northeast of this state.  This is the only area in New South Wales where Koalas are reasonably common (Arnold 1992).  Citizen lawsuits to halt logging and other development have no legal standing in Victoria and Queensland, and in New South Wales, the government uses taxpayer money to destroy habitat and fight lawsuits (Arnold 1992).  An activist organization fighting to save the Koalas, Australians for Animals, states that a mid-1990s drought on the heels of devastating forest fires in 1993 eliminated the species from much of its remaining habitat (Arnold 1992).  The Koala requires a large, undisturbed eucalyptus forest.  Like many animals devastated by slaughter by the fur trade and failing to recover, it reproduces very slowly.  Koalas do not mature until age 5, have only one young per year (although twins have been reported) and can live to be 18 years old in the wild (Nowak 1999). 
 
     Beginning in 1985, Koalas faced yet another devastating threat.  The first diseased animals suffering from an epidemic of chlamydia were found, many of them blind, sterile or dead (Dayton 1991).  Dr. John Woolcock, a veterinary microbiologist at the University of Queensland, has studied the organism attacking Koalas, a pathogen known primarily as an avian disease; the disease affects the eyes and the urinary and reproductive tracts of its victims (Dayton 1991).  "It brings tears to the eyes to see blind animals or those with weeping inflamed eyes," said Woolcock (Dayton 1991).  The Koala Preservation Society of New South Wales, first organized in 1972 by Jean and Max Starr, began caring for injured and diseased Koalas and constructed a Koala Hospital in the Macquarie Nature Reserve to rescue the growing number of diseased animals that were brought to them (Phillips 1994).  Enclosures were built with eucalyptus trees for their first patients; by 1990, more than 2,000 Koalas had been treated (Phillips 1994).  A second hospital had to be built in 1986 near a regional headquarters for the National Parks and Wildlife Service; blind Koalas are kept in large enclosures and hand fed by volunteers (Phillips 1994).  Koalas. Australia's Ancient Ones, a book by Ken Phillips (1994), describes the extraordinary care given by the organization to these sick and injured animals, who are remarkably stoic and patient throughout their recuperations.
 
      According to some Koala experts, chlamydia is endemic to Koalas, yet few healthy animals succumb to the infection (Phillips 1994).  Many biologists and veterinarians believe that the increase in the spread and the number of animals succumbing to the disease is a result of the species' vulnerability from combined stresses.  The loss of 80 percent of their habitat in the last 200 years has resulted in their overcrowding in fragmented bits of forest.  They are stressed by the threat of dogs that hunt and kill them when they walk on the ground between trees, and many are injured or killed by cars when they try to cross roads.  Stranded Koalas have been found clinging to huge electric poles with high-tension wires on all sides; they had climbed up the poles in desperation, as the only tree-like structures in a denuded landscape (Dayton 1991).  Removal of just one or two species of eucalyptus from a forest may force Koalas to travel far afield to find edible species, and if they eat leaves not compatible with their digestion, they will die of starvation (Phillips 1994).  Very few preserves have been set aside for them, and they are a symbol of the many endangered Australian marsupials threatened by habitat loss.
 
     After the 1993 forest fires, many of which were intentionally set by arsonists, hundreds--and perhaps thousands--of Koalas died or were seriously burned.  One critically injured Koala was dubbed Terry Glen, for the two men from the electric company who rescued him with a cherry picker, so blackened by fire that they thought at first he was a bubble of burned sap in the top of the charred tree (Phillips 1994).  Terry Glen had lost most of his fur, his ears and eyelids were singed, his nails burned off and he was in deep shock. In the Koala Hospital's intensive care unit, veterinarians treated him as if he were a human burn victim, with special bandages and rehydration.  For months he had to be carried around because he could not walk on his bandaged feet; remarkably, he survived.  After more than a year in treatment at the hospital, with volunteers providing eucalyptus leaves and special attention to encourage eating and exercise, Terry Glenn, looking like a normal, healthy Koala, was released back to the wild (Phillips 1994).  Many burned Koalas were rescued by private citizens during the 1993 fires and treated in their homes, with guidance from the Koala Hospital and other veterinarians.  Some were lucky enough to recover to be released to the wild.  Although Terry Glen apparently survived after release, several Koalas, after lengthy care, were released only to be killed by dogs.  The majority of Koalas, however, do not survive forest fires, another factor contributing to their decline.
 
     The combined effects of land clearing, fire, hunting, disease, automobile collisions, predation, and continued failure by Australian states to protect Koala habitats may end in their extinction.  The Koala's gene pool has been depleted, and its extreme vulnerability to disease in the late 20th century may be a symptom of a weakened species declining to extinction.  The U.S. Endangered Species Act lists the species as Threatened, but it is not protected by CITES.


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