National Geographic

Koalas Are So Cute! (And Threatened)

National Geographic

Koalas: They're downright adorable, and that's obvious. (Don't even try to suppress the high-pitched coo.)

"They're pretty much exactly what you think," admits National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, who was on assignment in Australia last October for a story in the magazine's current issue.

Except — his job was to photograph a scene that isn't so cute. In fact, a bit of an editor's note: Some of these photos are kind of grisly to look at. "The goal," he says, "was to tell the story of the plight of the koala in the northern half of Australia."

  • Photographer Joel Sartore says koalas really are as cute as they seem. "They're pretty much exactly what you think," he says. Here, two joeys cling to each other at an animal hospital in Australia.
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    Photographer Joel Sartore says koalas really are as cute as they seem. "They're pretty much exactly what you think," he says. Here, two joeys cling to each other at an animal hospital in Australia.
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic
  • Up a tree in Petrie, a town north of Brisbane, a female koala watches photo assistant Jess Hooper approach with a basket to drop on her if she comes down before rescuers arrive. Koalas often return to trees they consider their territory, says rescuer Megan Aitken, "even if those trees are now in somebody's front yard."
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    Up a tree in Petrie, a town north of Brisbane, a female koala watches photo assistant Jess Hooper approach with a basket to drop on her if she comes down before rescuers arrive. Koalas often return to trees they consider their territory, says rescuer Megan Aitken, "even if those trees are now in somebody's front yard."
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic
  • Wielding a blanket, Megan Aitken of the Moreton Bay Koala Rescue team bundles a young male that was hit by a car. Development in prime koala habitat makes such scenes inevitable, she says: "If koalas aren't protected, we're looking at local extinction within five years."
    Hide caption
    Wielding a blanket, Megan Aitken of the Moreton Bay Koala Rescue team bundles a young male that was hit by a car. Development in prime koala habitat makes such scenes inevitable, she says: "If koalas aren't protected, we're looking at local extinction within five years."
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic
  • Killed in a single week by cars or dogs, these koalas were mourned at the vet clinic that tried to save them. During "trauma season," from July to December, when the animals descend to the ground in search of mates and new food trees, a dozen or so injured koalas a week are brought to the clinic.
    Hide caption
    Killed in a single week by cars or dogs, these koalas were mourned at the vet clinic that tried to save them. During "trauma season," from July to December, when the animals descend to the ground in search of mates and new food trees, a dozen or so injured koalas a week are brought to the clinic.
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic
  • Attacked by a dog, Bruzer, a young male, recuperates from surgery at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, where hundreds of koalas are treated every year for injuries inflicted by dogs or automobiles. With his facial bones crushed, Bruzer succumbed to infection and complications after veterinarians tried to repair his sinuses.
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    Attacked by a dog, Bruzer, a young male, recuperates from surgery at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, where hundreds of koalas are treated every year for injuries inflicted by dogs or automobiles. With his facial bones crushed, Bruzer succumbed to infection and complications after veterinarians tried to repair his sinuses.
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic
  • Vicky Toomey, head veterinarian nurse at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland, trims a cast for Harley, who is lucky to be alive and on the mend after being hit by a car.
    Hide caption
    Vicky Toomey, head veterinarian nurse at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland, trims a cast for Harley, who is lucky to be alive and on the mend after being hit by a car.
    Joel Sartore/National Geographic

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So what's causing this "plight," exactly? Well, somewhat obviously, it's us.

"You think we're developing stuff here [in the States]," Sartore says over the phone, "you should go to Australia. Koalas can't take it. They're not fast; they can't defend themselves against dogs and against traffic."

Some research shows that we humans almost can't help but find koalas cute; and that, to a degree, might work in their favor toward survival.

But they're just not the brightest crayons in the box. They need about 20 hours of sleep in order to live off their nutrient-deprived diet of eucalyptus. They also, obviously, need trees. So when eucalyptus is wiped away in huge swaths for development, koalas aren't smart or fast enough to relocate.

Though it's tempting to fantasize about having these cuddly creatures in your front yard, the reality (and it has become a reality) seems a lot less enchanting. You can read more about it, and what rescue groups are doing for koalas, in the article.

But there's a silver lining. This past Monday, certain koalas in Australia's northern regions, were officially recognized by the government as "threatened species."

"Koala populations are under serious threat from habitat loss and urban expansion," the official news release reads, "as well as vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease."

According to Sartore, that's a step in the right direction.

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