SUSAN STAMBERG, HOST:
Earlier this summer, the Australian government added the koala to the country's list of endangered species. By some counts, only about 100,000 koalas left in the wild. But many conservationists say the listing doesn't go far enough. From Sydney, Stuart Cohen reports.
PAUL O'DONNELL: There's three species that are their main food trees.
STUART COHEN, BYLINE: Paul O'Donnell is one of the many volunteers at Friends of the Koala in the northern New South Wales town of Lismore.
O'DONNELL: We go out every day for about an hour or so collecting leaf. Usually we get about one bin per koala.
COHEN: With three animals in permanent care, too sick to be returned to the wild, Friends of the Koala is one of a handful of organizations working on the frontlines to save the iconic Australian marsupial.
O'DONNELL: They might be attacked by dogs or they might be run over by a car or they might just be sick and wandering around on the ground.
COHEN: During their busy season, Friends of the Koala receives as many as four calls a day to rescue sick or injured koalas. The group also works with local governments, advocating for koala-friendly development and helps landowners plant eucalyptus trees to feed the notoriously finicky eaters. But the group's president Lorraine Vass says many rescued koalas don't survive.
LORRAINE VASS: If I give you the example of the past few years, we actually have admitted just over 300 koalas each year. But getting koalas released back into the wild, the figure is as low as, you know, 62, 65. That's not a, a very good success rate at all.
COHEN: The koala once numbered in the millions but was hunted to near extinction in the early twentieth century for its thick fur. Many credit the U.S. for helping save the animal by banning the import of koala pelts. But its numbers have never fully recovered. Today, Lorraine Vass says, the koala's biggest threat is urbanization and loss of habitat along Australia's heavily populated east coast.
VASS: The difficulty is that koalas, by and large, live where we want to live. So, there's that competition for space.
COHEN: The new government listing declares the koala only vulnerable, the least protected status possible, and only in two states where the populations are declining rapidly. Many conservationists aren't happy and think the koala deserves more.
DEBORAH TABART: For a country that, sort of, exploits this amazing animal, you know, Oprah, the first thing that she did was cuddle a koala, we just don't do anything to protect it.
COHEN: Deborah Tabart is president of the Australian Koala Foundation. For the past quarter century, she's been the animal's defender-in-chief, lobbying politicians, battling property developers and other industries and pushing for a simple, national law to give the koala maximum protection.
TABART: Why is it this hard? And if it's this hard for a species that doesn't eat anyone, doesn't destroy any crops, doesn't do anything except sit in a tree and look magnificent and sell billions of dollars' worth of tourists' stuffed teddies, then you really know that the forces against this are very big.
COHEN: Tabart's group estimates koalas bring in more than a billion dollars in tourism annually, with 75 percent of all visitors to Australia wanting to see a koala.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Something that you might not know is that koalas are really capable swimmers.
COHEN: Around a quarter-million of those tourists every year come here to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary in the suburbs of Australia's third largest city, Brisbane. Lone Pine has the world's biggest population of captive koalas and is one of the only places in the country where tourists can hold a koala.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If you want to have cuddles or photos, it's just in the photo area over there.
COHEN: Curator Jacqui Brumm says here the emphasis is on education.
JACQUI BRUMM: Hopefully, through just a short amount of time that they spend with koalas here and some of the educational programs we put together and the public presentations, people go away with an appreciation for a koala, knowing exactly what it is that they can help in their own small way out in their own suburban areas.
(SOUNDBITE OF KOALA BELLOWING)
BRUMM: That's a male bellow, which is a sound that a male will make when he's ready to breed with a female, or to indicate to another male that this is his territory.
COHEN: Now, koalas are facing a brand new threat. The growing push for gas drilling and fracking, also along Australia's east coast, could see yet more of their dwindling habitat disappear.
TABART: Look, I think that Australia, we've got a land of plenty mentality. Everyone just thinks, oh, well, there's more bush, there's more koalas. I get that all the time - oh, there's lots of koalas, Deborah. There's not.
COHEN: For NPR News, I'm Stuart Cohen in Sydney.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.