Four Ways to Celebrate Wild Koala Day

Koalas, often called koala bears, are not bears, but marsupials. These iconic Australian mammals, found in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country, are a must-see for all visitors. But despite their popularity and cuteness factor, these arboreal (tree-dwelling) creatures are currently at risk.

Urban development, agriculture and mining, in addition to climate-driven weather events like intense wildfires and extreme drought, are causing wild koala populations to decline drastically. They are now listed as endangered on the east coast of Australia.

Wild Koala Day, celebrated each year on May 3, began as a way to honor these animals and bring attention to their plight.  

For this special day, we’ve put together a brief overview of what makes koalas so special, the threats they face and what you can do to help them—not just on Wild Koala Day but all year long!

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Meet the Koala

Koalas—those iconic Australian animals—sport stout bodies, grayish-brown fur with lighter coloring on the chest, and large round heads with fluffy ears, beady eyes and big black noses. They don’t have tails like monkeys; instead, their strong limbs, opposable thumbs and sharp claws allow them to hang onto tree branches with ease, and their rough paw pads and sturdy bottom make spending large amounts of time on tree branches possible.

Although their vision is poor, koalas rely on their keen sense of smell to find food and mates. Their fur may look fuzzy, but, in fact, it’s coarse like sheep’s wool. 

Koala in a tree in Victoria, Australia

© Lavanya Sunkara

Koalas are marsupials, like kangaroos and wallabies, which are also endemic to Australia. They give birth to underdeveloped babies, which stay inside their mother’s pouch for up to six months to develop completely. The baby, known as a joey, takes another six to 12 months on the mom’s back until it is capable of surviving in the wild. When not eating, koalas spend the majority of their time snoozing up in the trees, as they can sleep up to 20 hours a day

Koalas live in one of the driest climates in the world, and they’ve evolved to survive on arid or semi-arid land. They don’t need much water to survive, as they get the majority of their hydration from consuming fresh eucalyptus leaves. In fact, the word koala comes from the Dharug people, and it means “no drink” or “no water” in their language. 

Hoping to spot koalas on a trip to Australia? You can find these animals either lazing on forks of tree branches with their young or munching on leaves. They inhabit areas along the coastlines of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland, along with a small area in South Australia.  

Threats to Koala Survival

Koalas require lots of space and depend on Australia’s forests to survive. They rely on eucalyptus trees for food and shelter. These trees have toxins in their leaves that koalas (along with possums and gliders) have adapted to digest. Each animal needs about a hundred trees to survive.

Fire

Tragically, the rampant bushfires that ripped through southern and eastern Australia from June 2019 to February 2020 burned 46 million acres of land and claimed the lives or displaced an estimated three billion animals, including a third of the country’s koala population.  

Other Threats

In addition to the devastating fires, koalas face other threats, chief among them land clearing and fragmentation of eucalyptus forests for settlement, agriculture, logging and mining. Nearly 80% of their traditional range has disappeared due to human development. Droughts (which have intensified due to climate change), dog attacks, car accidents, and predation by dingoes and owls also contribute to their population decline. 

Koala in a tree in Australia

Hunting & Disease

Historically, koala numbers dropped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when they were hunted for fur. In southeast Queensland and New South Wales, chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, began to spread widely through koala colonies, weakening their immune systems and causing infertility, bladder infections, blindness and even death. Nearly half of the koalas in these regions are infected, and efforts are currently underway to vaccinate koalas against the disease. 

The koala population decreased by 50% or more in New South Wales and Queensland over the past two decades, causing them to be listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and identified as among the animals most susceptible to climate change. In addition to contributing to more intensive wildfires and drought, increasing carbon dioxide is decreasing the nutritional value of the koala’s main food source: eucalyptus leaves. 

Conservation of Koalas

In early 2022, the Australian government listed the koala as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory. They are safeguarded under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, and the decision is supported by three organizations: the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International and World Wildlife Fund-Australia. Unfortunately, this protection left out the koalas in Victoria and South Australia. 

Funding

Classifying the koala as endangered has helped bring much-needed attention to their plight. and with this status came funds for their protection. In 2019, the Australian government allocated $13 million for koala habitat restoration and protection, research and medical help. The funds also went toward a federal koala monitoring program. In the next four years, the government is allocating close to $36 million for koala conservation. 

Habitat Protection

After the bushfires, many rescue organizations, zoos and wildlife hospitals took in injured koalas with the goal of returning them to the wild. Many koalas currently live in private, unprotected lands, with a small number in sanctuaries and reserves. There are ongoing efforts by state governments to create reserves, and institutions like the Australia Zoo are purchasing large swaths of land for koalas. Australian citizens are also urged to not cut down eucalyptus trees on their properties. 

Monitoring

To monitor the post-fire recovery of koalas, WWF-Australia and Conservation International, with a $1 million grant from Google.org (Google’s philanthropic arm), launched An Eye on Recovery, an initiative to leverage artificial intelligence and the use of around 600 sensor cameras to monitor wildlife in the areas severely impacted by the bushfires. The areas covered include the East Gippsland, Blue Mountains, Kangaroo Island and South East Queensland. Once images are captured, they are analyzed by Wildlife Insights, a cloud platform using AI technology and machine learning developed by Google to identify koalas. 

Forest Restoration

WWF Australia also launched an innovative program called “Regenerate Australia” that uses seed-dispersing drones. WWF-Australia, in collaboration with local partners, is hoping to connect the fragmented forest area to enable koalas and other wildlife to easily and safely migrate. This is the largest program of its kind in the country’s history and aims to double the koala population by 2050. It utilizes specialized drones to disperse seeds of eucalyptus trees, with some drones capable of planting up to 40,000 seeds a day. 

Koala in a tree in Australia

© Lavanya Sunkara

How to Help Save Koalas

The koala is beloved across the globe, but it needs more than our adoration to continue its fight for survival. Here are four easy ways to help koala populations recover and thrive:

1. Adopt a Koala

No, you wouldn’t actually be adopting and bringing home an adorable koala. (Sorry!) This program encourages well-wishers to symbolically adopt a koala. For your donation, you will receive a plush version of your adopted animal, an adoption certificate and a color photo of the animal with interesting facts, both set in beautiful frames.

2. Make a Donation to WWF

As mentioned above, WWF has been invested in helping bring back koala populations in Australia. This initiative requires significant funding. In January 2020, WWF UK raised close to $4 million from supporters to fund recovery efforts, including emergency care for injured koalas, temporary homes and the planting of 10,000 trees. WWF Australia is continuing its efforts with habitat protection and restoration projects, such as seed-dispersing drones and camera sensor monitoring programs.

3. Take a Nat Hab trip to Australia

There’s no better way to feel connected to an animal than by seeing it up close! Whether you choose our South Australia or Ultimate Australia nature tour, you’re in for some unique adventures in stunning landscapes like the Great Barrier Reef, Daintree Rainforest, Tasmania and much more. Not only will you see and learn about koalas and other endemic Australian wildlife, but our presence in the region directly helps protect koalas and their habitats through conservation projects and funding.

4. Share Your Love for Koalas

The first step in protecting a species is often just raising awareness of them and the threats they face! Share this blog post (or one of the pages linked below) on social media to help spread the word. 

The post Four Ways to Celebrate Wild Koala Day first appeared on Good Nature Travel Blog.

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