Well, first they aren’t bears. That’s right—no koala bear, just koala. And the second thing is that there are lots of them, at least where we were at Cape Otway in Otway National Park in Victoria, Australia. Way lots.
In fact, once you develop an eye for them—I might call it a koala eye—as you drive down the eucalyptus lanes you begin to see them all over. You notice furry lumps in the trees, some of them motionless in crooks of branches, some slowly crawling around. There’s one. There’s another one.
In some places the rental cars are pulled over on the side of the road in droves with gaggles of Asian tourists pointing at the trees and aiming a barrage of high-end cameras, ipads and cellphones upward. For some reason it seemed the entire population of Korea, Japan and Taiwan had decided to visit Australia during the week we were there.
But later in the day, after the throngs have disappeared, or on the back roads you can watch koalas in relative solitude. Koalas sleep about twenty hours a day, and are most active in the early morning and at dusk when they feed. They live, eat and sleep in eucalyptus trees, only coming down from the trees for a quick jaunt to an adjacent tree.
There’s something about seeing your first of anything. I mean I’d obviously seen pictures of koalas, and even film of them on National Geographic or the Discovery channel, and perhaps even seen them at a zoo. But it is something special to see an animal such as the koala in the wild for the first time. You look into a tree and there a dozen feet above you is a strange ball of fur with a warm, friendly-looking face and a big black nose staring back at you. Slowly as you watch it reaches out a clawed paw and pulls a tuft of eucalyptus leaves toward its mouth and begins munching on the leaves.
Are they cute? Yes. Adorable. Would like to reach out and pet them? Yes. They look like stuffed animals—except for the razor-sharp claws on each paw. Despite their docile appearance, they can also be fiercely territorial. Don’t try to handle them.
They also look intelligent when they stare back at you with their doleful eyes, but apparently koalas have one of the smallest brains in proportion to body weight of any mammal. And although they look like miniature bears, they aren’t related to true bears, and hence shouldn’t be called that. Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) are marsupials, more accurately arboreal, herbivorous marsupials native to Australia and are more related to the Australian wombat and kangaroo than to bears. They survive (listed as ‘vulnerable’) in the eastern and southern coastal regions of Australia. They vary in size. The ones are Otway Park were listed as being about 30 inches long and weighing about 30 pounds, slightly larger than other koalas in Australia.
Koalas, mostly the males, make a deep grunting sound, which seems a bit out of character for such a cuddly-looking animal. When we stopped alongside a eucalyptus forest, we could often hear the characteristic grunting from nearby trees.
They can be quite devastating to the trees, and can destroy forests. They love eucalyptus trees. That’s basically all they eat—eucalyptus leaves. Australia has over 600 species of eucalyptus trees, but the koalas generally only prefer 30 of these. One type of eucalyptus tree, manga gum, is a particular favorite; they will eat every last leaf on the tree—down to the bone as it were—leaving the tree to die. Many of the trees in Otway are bare presumably because of the koalas.
We spent the night at Bimbi Park Camping Under Koalas, an Australian holiday park. Sure enough, there were koalas in the trees in the campground although many of the trees have metal bands girding the trunk to prevent koala access.
In the past, disease and hunting virtually wiped out koalas in Victoria, one of the six Australian states, where we now were. With regards to Cape Otway, 75 koalas were introduced there in 1981. By 2013 there were 8,000 koalas. Starvation began to kill some of them and the population of koalas is currently being managed to protect both koalas and the forests.
Forest fires can also decimate koala populations since instead of running away, koalas tend to stay in the tree branches or climb to higher branches. Here’s a famous photo from 2009 of a burned and bewildered koala accepting a drink from a fireman. Koalas generally don’t even drink water but rather get water through the eucalyptus leaves they eat.
Finally, here’s a minute and half video of some of the koalas we saw.