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Despite the widespread colloquial use of "koala bears", koalas are not actually bears—they are marsupials. European settlers that arrived in Australia inaccurately called koalas ‘bears’ because of their resemblance to bears. Their Latin name Phascolarctos cinereus actually means "pouched bear".
On average, koalas can live for more than 15 years in the wild, but few, especially males, survive beyond 10 years due to disease, vehicle strikes and predation by dogs and other animals.
Because koalas are so difficult to spot in the wild and are distributed across such large areas, there is no consistent mapping or monitoring method. What we do know is that there used to be millions of koalas in Australia but now, in some areas, you are lucky to see even one in the wild. Their numbers are plummeting in Queensland and New South Wales, and while they are considered more abundant in other areas, they face a multitude of threats. Koalas are in trouble and need all the help they can get.
Despite their cute and cuddly-seeming exterior, koalas are wild animals that can become aggressive and injure you. Like all wild animals, they shouldn’t be approached unless they’re injured, sitting or lying on the ground for an extended period of time and in need of help.
Koala mothers usually have one joey per year, and on rare occasions give birth to twins. The breeding season is generally between July and September and most young are born over the warmer summer months. However, in some years, it can be extended by up to six weeks due to an increased availability of food and changes to the weather.
Koala joeys usually stay in the mother's pouch for about six months. After this, they will ride on their mother's back and remain there until they are almost one–year old, at which point they can live more independently.
Koala joeys cannot regulate their own body temperatures at first, so they rely on their mothers for warmth and milk. Mothers have two teats or nipples in the pouch which allow young koalas to feed on milk produced by glands in the mother's abdomen. At about six months, joeys pop their head outside the pouch to feed on “pap,” a substance the mother produces in addition to milk that allows the joey to prepare its stomach for a transition from milk to eucalyptus leaves.
When they are born, koala joeys weigh about one gram (0.035 oz) and grow rapidly during their time in the pouch due to a high-protein diet of milk that is produced by specialised glands inside the mother's body. Koala joeys can increase up to 10 times their initial size within three months! By six months old, baby koalas have reached adult weights of between three and six kilograms (6-13 lbs).
Koala joeys stay with their mothers until they are almost one year old, developing important life skills such as climbing trees and finding food before venturing out on their own. This means that female koalas usually only produce one joey each year due to having little opportunity to breed while caring for their young.
Populations of some species have declined dramatically over the last century or so due to habitat loss, disease and dog attacks. The IUCN lists the koala as Vulnerable on its Red List of Threatened Species.
Koalas are vulnerable to extinction in Queensland, NSW and the Australian Capital Territory under the Australian national environmental law (EPBC Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999).
Habitat destruction caused by excessive land clearing and development is the biggest threat to koalas as it forces them to live in urban areas where they face deadly encounters with cars and domestic dogs. Sadly, humans and koalas like to live in the same places: lush sub-tropical coastal areas. Australia has one of the world’s worst deforestation rates—NSW is on a par with Brazil.
It is crucial that koalas have a safe and secure habitat to increase their chances of survival. We have been working hard to rebuild vital wildlife corridors to give koalas and other native species the safe refuges they desperately need. Through our partnership with Friends of the Koalas, we rescue, rehabilitate, and release injured or orphaned koalas—giving them a second chance at life in the wild. We’ve invested in a three-year groundbreaking research project with our partners at the University of the Sunshine Coast, whose Detection Dogs for Conservation team will collect data about the genetics and health of koala populations so we can understand the resilience of koalas after bushfires.
To create real change, we need to work with the government, so we continue to advocate for stronger environmental laws to protect our native wildlife and the places they call home. We have submitted a nomination for New South Wales koalas to be provisionally up-listed from Vulnerable to Endangered on an emergency basis. This will give them elevated protections and breathing space to recover after the catastrophic Black Summer bushfires.
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