Deborah Tabart is executive director of the Australian Koala Foundation, an independent organization dedicated to the conservation of the koala and its habitat.

Monday, 11 Sep 2000

BRISBANE, Australia

When the Olympics begin this Friday, the world will be watching Australia. Beautiful images of koalas will be beamed across the globe, but there will be no mention that koalas in the wild face a series of threats, foremost habitat destruction.

Won’t you be my mascot?

The koala is one of the most well-loved and well-recognized Aussie animals, second only to the kangaroo. This year, the world will be meeting the Olympic mascots — Ollie (an echidna), Millie (a platypus), and Syd (a kookaburra) — examples of the beautiful and extraordinary fauna that are native to Australia. But I am really disappointed that the koala wasn’t chosen as an Olympic mascot.

The koala is a symbol of what we all love about Australia — the bush, our identity, national pride — and it could be the flagship for conservation. It is my personal view that our Olympic organizers did not choose the koala as a mascot because there is such a strong conservation lobby for the protection of its habitat. And at some point, someone would ask the question, “Is the koala safe?” And the answer would be, “No!”

Koala conservation isn’t as romantic or clear-cut as one might think. Most koala populations — we estimate 80 percent — live on privately owned land, most of which is not protected by legislation, and that means there is virtually nothing that can stop landholders from doing what they want with their property, even if it is detrimental to koalas.

Many of our significant koala habitats are under pressure from suburbia, from ordinary Australians who are wanting to live the Australian dream of their own bit of land with a house and a backyard.

Did you know that over 90 percent of the Australian population lives in coastal cities and towns, not in the bush? We are definitely not all like Crocodile Dundee (although many of us would like to think we are!). If you look at a map of where koalas live and where people live, they overlap because we both like the fertile coastal strip. Koalas compete directly with humans for land.

This sign reminds motorists to share the road with koalas.

My office is situated in Brisbane, very close to the center of one of the largest remaining urban koala populations in the country. In fact, my office is probably built on land where there were once koalas roaming free. The area surrounding Brisbane is now under immense pressure from development — new roads, new housing estates, new shopping centers.

The local koala hospital admits approximately 1,200 koalas each year, and only about 250 go back to the wild. The pressure on them is immense. The population of koalas in Brisbane, living in an area of about 25,000 acres, is estimated to be 5,000 to 7,000 animals. How long can they suffer this rate of loss?

I do not think that Brisbane’s local koala population will survive. There are too many urban pressures on it. I am not liked for saying this, but the figures speak for themselves. Many people involved in conservation say that if you tell the truth about how hopeless the future looks, it will depress those we need to inspire. But I think it is time to tell it like it is and hope that the citizens and politicians alike wake up.

Until there is a real commitment by government to address the issues that threaten koalas — habitat loss and fragmentation, cars, dogs, disease, bushfire — their population decline will continue. The Australian Koala Foundation is pushing for a National Koala Act to tackle these problems.

Developments are approved one by one, with no big picture in mind. We need to set aside key areas and then educate the people who live nearby and give them incentives to plant indigenous trees that can serve as koala habitat. We need to encourage people to drive carefully, especially at night when koalas are likely to cross the road, and to be responsible dog owners (dogs are a major killer of koalas). People need to become conservationists in their own backyards.

Often I’m amazed at how hard it is to convince people from overseas that koalas get run over on the roads or attacked by dogs. American zoo visitors see koalas as precious and honored, as they should be, and I suspect it is almost impossible for them to think of koalas facing perils like car accidents, but it happens every day.

Suburbia is sprawling across koala country.

Australians have the same problem. Most Aussies have never seen a wild koala, and they don’t think of their trees as being part of what sustains them. Most people love koalas and want to “save” them, but don’t associate expansion of towns and cities as part of the problem.

Tomorrow I’m going to meet with a developer on the northern coast of New South Wales near a little town called Pottsville. We’ve been collaborating with him for five years now, encouraging ordinary people to become koala conservationists by living in a residential estate that has koala protection as a major goal. In this area, residents are educated about koalas and their needs, trees that provide habitat are protected, traffic speeds are reduced, and no cats and dogs are allowed.

This developer and the AKF have formed an unusual alliance, one that is still new in this country, and we both hope that it will lead the way to a truly sustainable Australia where humans and wildlife live in harmony.