National Geographic News
On Kangaroo Island, a rugged eco-tourism paradise 30 minutes by air southwest of Adelaide, the koala is eating its way out of house and home and eucalyptus tree. Wildlife officials are sterilizing and exporting the fuzzy little marsupials to the mainland, but not everybody thinks the population-control program makes ecological sense.
"Koalas are not the root but only a small part of the problem," maintains Deborah Tabart, executive director of the Australian Koala Foundation, a private research and conservation organization. She considers the government's random sterilization a "knee-jerk" response that disrupts the koala community.
Koalas, declared an endangered species by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service two years ago, are anything but threatened on the 737-square-mile island where they strip the manna gum eucalyptus trees they favor, eventually killing the trees. The government has sterilized about 3,400 adult koalas since 1997 and shipped out over 1,000.
"When we remove the koalas, the trees recovered. It is a clear indication that the koalas are the problem," says Keith Twyford, Kangaroo Island regional manager for National Parks and Wildlife South Australia.
The island is home to plant and animal species found nowhere else, but the koala wasn't always among them. When the koala faced extinction because of over-hunting for its fur, the government introduced about 18 adult koalas from French Island in Victoria in the early 1920s.
"They saw Kangaroo Island as an Ark where the animals could live free from the pressures of development," Twyford explains.
With no natural enemies, the koalas thrived, spending up to 20 hours a day snoozing in the eucalyptus trees and the rest of the time eating them. A 2000-2001 survey estimated about 27,000 koalas on the island. The koala foundation believes the total number in the country is around 100,000, but other estimates go as high as 400,000.
Elsewhere in the nation, koala populations are declining, threatened by wood-chip production, foxes, dogs, automobiles and urbanization. But the solution is not as simple as moving koalas from where there are too many to where there are too few. Several sub-species are involved, and the Kangaroo Island variety is larger than those found in Queensland and New South Wales.
On the mainland, koalas suffer from chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease causing infertility in females. Scientists suspect it has been controlling koala populations naturally for years. Adding more koalas would only put more stress on an already diminishing habitat.
Few koalas live outside Australia, but the U.S. government designated the animal as endangered in response to a petition filed by animal-protection groups. The Australian government, which bans hunting and commercial use of koalas, sees no scientific evidence that it is likely to become endangered anytime soon.
A national conservation policy dictates how individual states manage their koala populations, but South Australia's decision to sterilize sparked public outcry and a heated media debate. Politics, economics and the "Bambi factor" stirred as much discussion as the science.
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