It’s two in the morning and a koala is caught in barbed wire on a fence, like a prisoner trying to escape. A phone rings in the home of Megan Aitken in Burpengary, a suburb north of Brisbane. Aitken, 42, runs a volunteer organization devoted to rescuing wild koalas from a surprisingly wide array of hazards. Before the dispatcher has even given her the location, she has thrown her clothes on over her pyjamas.
When Aitken arrives on the scene, Jane Davies and Sandra Peachey, two other volunteers, are already there. The koala is clinging to a chain-link fence, its fur snagged in horizontal strands of barbed wire. Towering eucalyptus trees, as pale as ghosts, rise on the far side of the fence.
“He was obviously trying to get to the trees on the other side,” Aitken says.
Standing in the bright cones of car headlights, Aitken pulls on heavy leather welding gloves. Despite their huggable, stuffed-animal appearance, koalas can be ferocious when resisting capture. They’ll growl, flail, fight, and bite like angry raccoons, and Aitken has the scars to prove it. Next she places a wire cage on the ground near the animal and opens up a thick blanket. Then the three rescuers rapidly get to work.
Davies throws the blanket over the animal, both to calm it and to protect the rescuers from its teeth and claws. Peachey opens the lid of the cage, while Aitken firmly grasps the little black-nosed beast through the blanket, frees it from the fence, and drops it snarling and snapping into the cage.
“Well done, ladies!” Aitken shouts.
Looking down at the round-eyed koala they’ve just captured, Aitken considers a new problem. If this koala were sick or injured, they’d take it to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, 40 minutes north in Beerwah. But the animal is healthy. By protocol they must release it somewhere nearby, since koalas have a home range and feed in the same trees over and over. Yet this is Deception Bay, a densely populated suburb. The women study a street map with flashlights.
“This is the whole problem,” Aitken says, exasperated. “There are so few places left for the koala.” In the end they take the animal several blocks to tiny Boama Park, which borders a stretch of open land reaching all the way to the beach. Deep in the night the women carry the cage through the trees, setting it below a gray-skinned eucalyptus. Standing back, they spring the lid of the cage, and the koala dashes up the trunk and disappears.
“Good luck, little one,” Aitken says.
It will take a lot more than luck.
The koala, cuddly symbol of a nation and one of the most beloved animals on the planet, is in crisis. Before Europeans settled Australia more than two centuries ago, about ten million koalas lived in a 1,500-mile-long swath of the east coast eucalyptus forests. Hunted for their luxurious fur, koalas were brought to the edge of extinction in the southern half of their range. In the northern half, Queensland, a million were killed in 1919 alone. After the last open season in Queensland was held in 1927, only tens of thousands remained.
Through the next half century their numbers slowly rebounded, in part due to efforts to relocate and recolonize them. Then urbanization began to take its toll. Habitat was lost, and diseases spread. With urbanization came the threat of dogs and highways. Since 1990, when about 430,000 koalas inhabited Australia, their numbers have dropped sharply. Because surveys are difficult, current population estimates vary widely—from a low of 44,000 by advocacy groups to a high of 300,000 by government agencies. More than a decade ago a survey of the Koala Coast, a 93,000-acre region in south-eastern Queensland, estimated a koala population of 6,200; today there are believed to be around 2,000.
“Koalas are getting caught in fences and dying, being killed by dogs, struck by vehicles, even dying simply because a homeowner cut down several eucalyptus trees in his backyard,” says Deidré de Villiers, one of the chief koala researchers at the Queensland Department of Environment and Resource Management. For 15 years de Villiers, 38, has been tracking koalas, monitoring populations, studying the reasons for their decline, and creating guidelines to make development more koala-friendly.
De Villiers insists that koalas and humans can coexist in urban environments “if developers get on board with koala-sensitive designs,” such as lower speed limits for streets, green corridors for koala movement, and, most especially, preserving every precious eucalyptus tree. Unfortunately, koalas have another problem.
“Disease is the other huge issue,” says veterinarian Jon Hanger from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Queensland. Hanger has discovered that as much as half of Queensland’s koala population may be affected by the sexually transmitted disease chlamydiosis. In some wild koala populations more than 50 percent of the sexually mature females are infertile. The genesis of the disease is unknown, but it manifests itself as urogenital and ocular disease and is transmitted through mating and birthing, as well as fighting among males. Unlike in humans, chlamydiosis in koalas is often fatal.
“Koala populations that used to be vibrant and sustainable are becoming extinct,” says Hanger, who puts the blame squarely on the provincial government. “Queensland has failed miserably to do anything meaningful about the decline. The federal government needs to get involved and do it properly, listing the koala as vulnerable to extinction.” Such a designation might save the last remnants of critical koala habitat, he argues. Hanger is also part of a research team developing a chlamydia vaccine.
A recent report presented to the Australian Senate made several recommendations to save the koalas, including listing the animals as threatened and vulnerable, funding a program to monitor koala populations, mapping their habitat, and managing federal and private lands to protect the koalas. Until such measures are taken, the efforts of grassroots koala emergency squads will continue to be essential.
“The more koalas we lose, the more valuable each rescued koala becomes,” says Hanger.
Staff from an animal care centre in Queensland, Australia, helped photographer Joel Sartore make this array of a single week’s koala losses. Some of the dead, like the mother and baby in the bottom row, were attacked by dogs. Others were struck by cars. A few, like those shown brightly bandaged, arrived alive and received treatment for their injuries but still did not survive.