Save the Koala Day is September 29th! This day was created by the Australian Koala Foundation to raise awareness of the plight of koalas in Australia. Koalas are unique animals found only in Australia. They are considered “living fossils”, and are facing numerous threats due to human encroachment into their habitat. Let’s learn a bit more about koalas and how we can save them.
First, let’s get something out of the way: koalas are not bears. While they are commonly called “koala bears”, they are not closely related to bears at all. Koalas are actually marsupials, meaning that their young are born before being fully developed and spend most of their early life in a pouch located near the mother’s stomach. Other marsupials include kangaroos, wallabies, possums, and wombats, which are the koala’s closest living relative.
Though many species of prehistoric koala can be found in the fossil record, there is only one species of koala alive today. It is the sole living member of its family, the Phascolarctidae. There are currently three recognized subspecies: the Queensland koala, the New South Wales koala, and the Victorian koala. They can be told apart from each other by their fur and size. For example, the smallest is the Queensland koala, which has a short coat of silver hair, while the largest is the Victorian koala, which has brown shaggy fur.
Koalas spend much of their time in trees, munching on their preferred meal of eucalyptus leaves. This diet is not very nutrient rich, and is actually quite toxic, so much of the animal’s energy is devoted to processing their food. This means that koalas must sleep for 18 to 20 hours every day. Any time not spent sleeping is typically spent eating, or looking for more food. They are rarely found on the ground, and only leave their tree when moving to a new tree or looking for water. Their bodies are specialized for feeding and resting in trees, with unique teeth designed for chomping leaves, and two thumbs on each of their front paws to better help them grasp branches.
Koalas were classified as Vulnerable by the Australian government in 2012, and were upgraded from a Least Concern species to Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List in 2016. This list is maintained by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and tracks the threatened species of the world. Habitat destruction, fires, traffic accidents, and dog attacks are the biggest threats to koalas. Currently, it is not known how many koalas are left in the wild, and estimates vary greatly. While some, like Australia’s Federal Environment Minister, believe there are 200,000 koalas in the wild, the Australian Koala Foundation believes that number to be drastically lower, possibly as low as 43,000. By most estimates, the total koala population has decreased by 40% over the last 20 years.
That’s why the Australian Koala Foundation is pushing for powerful legislation to help stop the decline of koalas. Despite being declared a Vulnerable species by the government, this designation only applies to certain Australian states, and according to the AKF, adequate resources have not been provided to properly enforce the protections currently in place. If you’d like to know how you can help ensure the survival of this unique animal, visit the AKF’s homepage for more info!
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: The word “koala” is believed to originate from an Aboriginal word that means “no drink”. Though koalas do occasionally drink water, much of their moisture intake comes from the eucalyptus leaves they eat.