Koalas, often called koala bears, are not bears, but marsupials. These iconic Australian mammals, found in the southeastern and eastern parts of the country, are a must-see for all visitors. But despite their popularity and cuteness factor, these arboreal (tree-dwelling) creatures are currently at risk.

Urban development, agriculture and mining, in addition to climate-driven weather events like intense wildfires and extreme drought, are causing wild koala populations to decline drastically. They are now listed as endangered on the east coast of Australia.

Wild Koala Day, celebrated on May 3, began as a way to honor these animals and bring attention to their plight.  

For this special day, we’ve put together a brief overview of what makes koalas so special, the threats they’re facing and what you can do to help them—not just on Wild Koala Day, but all year long!

Koala in a tree in Victoria, Australia

© Lavanya Sunkara

Victoria (along the Great Ocean Road

Meet the Koala

Koalas are iconic Australian animals, featuring a stout body, grayish-brown fur with lighter coloring on the chest, a large round head with fluffy ears, beady eyes and a big black nose. They don’t have tails like monkeys; instead, they sport strong limbs and opposable thumbs and sharp claws that allow them to hang onto tree branches with ease, and their rough paw pads and sturdy bottom make spending large amounts of time on tree branches possible. Although their vision is poor, koalas rely on their keen sense of smell to find food and mates. Their fur may look fuzzy, but, in fact, it’s coarse like sheep’s wool. 

Koalas are marsupials, like kangaroos and wallabies, which are also endemic to Australia. They give birth to underdeveloped babies, which stay inside their mother’s pouch for up to six months to develop completely. The baby, known as a joey, takes another six to 12 months on the mom’s back until it is capable of surviving in the wild. When not eating, koalas spend the majority of their time snoozing up in the trees, as they can sleep up to 20 hours a day

You could find these animals either lazing on forks of tree branches with their young, or munching on leaves, on a trip to the Australian continent. They inhabit areas along the coastlines of Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland along with a small area in South Australia.  

Threats to Survival

Koalas live in one of the driest climates in the world, and they’ve evolved to survive on arid or semi-arid land. The word koala comes from the Dharug people, and it means “no drink” or “no water” in their language. The reason behind this term is that koalas don’t need much water to survive, as they get the majority of their hydration from consuming fresh eucalyptus leaves.

Koalas require lots of space and depend on Australia’s forests to survive. They rely on eucalyptus trees for food and shelter. These trees have toxins in their leaves that koalas (along with possums and gliders) have adapted to digest. Each animal needs about a hundred trees to survive. The rampant bushfires that ripped through southern and eastern Australia from June 2019 to February 2020 burned 46 million acres of land and claimed the lives or displaced an estimated three billion animals, including a third of the country’s koala population.  

In addition to the devastating fires that engulfed many of their habitats, koalas face other threats, chief among them land clearing and fragmentation of eucalyptus forests for settlement, agriculture, logging and mining. Nearly 80% of their traditional range has disappeared due to human development. Drought that’s intensified due to climate change, dog attacks and car accidents, along with predation by dingoes and owls also contribute to their population decline. 

Koala in a tree in Australia

Historically, koala numbers dropped in the late 19th and early 20th centuries due to hunting for fur. In southeast Queensland and New South Wales, chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease, began to spread widely through koala colonies, weakening their immune systems and causing infertility, bladder infections, blindness and even death. Nearly half of the population in these regions are infected, and efforts are currently underway to vaccinate koalas against this bacteria. 

The koala population decreased by 50% or more in New South Wales and Queensland over the past two decades. These marsupials have been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and identified as among the animals most susceptible to climate change. In addition to contributing to more intensive wildfires and drought, increasing carbon dioxide is decreasing the nutritional value of the koala’s main food source: eucalyptus leaves. 

In early 2022, the Australian government listed the koala as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory and recognized that the species is at risk of disappearing. They are safeguarded under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act of 1999, and the decision is supported by three organizations: International Fund for Animal Welfare, Humane Society International and World Wildlife Fund-Australia. This protection, unfortunately, left out the koalas in Victoria and South Australia. 

Conservation of Koalas

Classifying the koala as endangered has helped bring much-needed attention to their plight. With this status came funds towards their protection in the last few years. In 2019, the Australian government allocated $13 million for habitat restoration and protection, research and medical help. The funds also went toward a federal koala monitoring program. In the next four years, the government is allocating close to $36 million towards koala conservation. 

Among the key initiatives to save the koala is securing places for them to survive. After the bushfires, many rescue organizations, zoos and wildlife hospitals took in injured koalas with the goal of returning them to the wild. Many koalas currently live in private, unprotected lands, with a small number in sanctuaries and reserves. There are ongoing efforts by state governments to create reserves, and institutions like the Australia Zoo are purchasing large swaths of land for koalas. Australian citizens are also urged to not cut down eucalyptus trees on their properties. 

To monitor the post-fire recovery of koalas, WWF-Australia and Conservation International, with a $1 million grant from Google.org (Google’s philanthropic arm), launched An Eye on Recovery, an initiative to leverage artificial intelligence and the use of around 600 sensor cameras to monitor wildlife in the areas severely impacted by the bushfires. The areas covered include the East Gippsland, Blue Mountains, Kangaroo Island and South East Queensland. Once images are captured, they are analyzed by Wildlife Insights, a cloud platform using AI technology and machine learning developed by Google to identify koalas. 

WWF Australia launched an innovative program called “Regenerate Australia” that uses seed-dispersing drones. WWF-Australia, in collaboration with local partners, is hoping to connect the fragmented forest area to enable koalas and other wildlife to easily and safely migrate. This is the largest program of its kind in the country’s history and aims to double the koala population by 2050. It utilizes specialized drones to disperse seeds of eucalyptus trees, with some drones capable of planting up to 40,000 seeds a day. 

Koala in a tree in Australia

© Lavanya Sunkara

How to Help

The koala is much loved across the globe, but it needs more than our adoration to continue its fight for survival. Here are some easy and hands-on ways to help koala populations recover and thrive in Australia. 

  • Adopt a Koala: No, you wouldn’t actually be adopting and bringing home an adorable koala. (Sorry!) This program encourages well-wishers to symbolically adopt a koala. For your donation, you will receive a plush version of your adopted animal, an adoption certificate and a color photo of the animal with interesting facts, both set in beautiful frames.
  • Make a donation to WWF: As mentioned above, WWF has been invested in helping bring back koala populations in Australia. This initiative requires significant funding. In January 2020, WWF UK raised close to $4 million from supporters to fund recovery efforts, including emergency care for injured koalas, temporary homes and the planting of 10,000 trees. WWF Australia is continuing the efforts with habitat protection and restoration projects, such as seed dispersing drones and camera sensor monitoring programs.
  • Take a Nat Hab trip to Australia: There’s no better way to feel connected to an animal than by seeing it up close! Whether you choose our South Australia, North Australia or brand-new Ultimate Australia nature tour, you are in for some unique adventures in stunning landscapes like Great Ocean Road and Daintree Rainforest. And you’re sure to see and learn about koalas and other endemic wildlife along the way
  • Share your love for koalas: In honor of Wild Koala Day, the people involved with the group encourage those who care about them to plant a tree, sign a petition to protect a forest or call local politicians urging them to save precious koala habitats.