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Saving Australia's Koalas

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Listen to Part I

Listen to Part II

February 26 & 27 -- Join Radio Expeditions in Australia Monday and Tuesday, February 26 and 27, 2001, on Morning Edition for two stories about one of the world's most beloved animals -- an Australian icon that nonetheless now faces threats to its existence.

The animal is the koala, a teddy-bear look-alike that is native to Australia. Koalas are mostly solitary tree-dwelling creatures with peculiar habits. They are sedentary for most of the day; they eat only the leaves of certain eucalyptus trees; and -- blessedly for radio -- they have a bellow you can hardly believe would come from such a modest sized animal.

Once hunted by the millions, koalas have been a protected species for decades. But as the forests of Australia are logged, and as cities spread into once wild land, the koala is squeezed out. In part one of our report, listen as Radio Expeditions correspondent Alex Chadwick visits a koala veterinary hospital near Brisbane to see how koala orphans -- often survivors of roadside accidents that kill koala mothers -- are nursed back to health for return to the wild.

At a nearby animal park, we meet a koala activist, Deborah Tabart, who says there are probably fewer than 100,000 koalas left. The U.S. government has listed the koala as a threatened species. Many Australians are aroused to try to save their national symbol. But the question remains: Can modern day Australia both feed a thriving economy and at the same time save the large amount of space the koala requires. If the koala is to survive, where will it live? Despite the worldwide adoration of koalas, their survival is precarious.

A New Home for Koalas
In part two of our report, we travel to a forest north of Sydney, where a university researcher, Dr. Ian Hume, is looking for answers. As Dr. Hume explains, koalas are incredibly fussy eaters. Like three-year old kids, they want only what they want in exactly the right way. The animal's habits pose a real problem for conservationists trying to restore koala habitat. It's not so simple as planting a forest of eucalyptus. It has to be just the right eucalyptus and in the right mix.

Through years of studying koala digestion, Ian Hume has created an experimental forest where he's watched koalas thrive for almost 10 years. We follow Dr. Hume on one of his regular forest hikes, tracking the radio-collared koalas to make sure they are healthy.

So far, the forest seems to work as it should. It is possible to recreate a healthy environment for koalas. But whether Australians will choose to set aside the land to support these creatures in the wild is another question, longer term, and probably even more difficult to answer. Listen as Alex visits the experimental forest and reports on this effort to save the koalas.

Alex with Bindi Alex with Bindi

A koala at home A koala at home

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