AUSTRALIA: Cuddly Koalas May be Loved to Extinction

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Aug 9 1997 (IPS) - Perched on tree branches, munching on gumleaves and making no fuss, Australia’s koalas form the backbone of the country’s lucrative tourist industry.

Next to the kangaroos, the furry koalas are Australia’s most well-known symbol. But conservation groups say the much-loved animal headed for extinction in its homeland.

For the first time, a conservation group called the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) has put a dollar figure on the value of the koala to make people and politicians understand how important it is to save their natural habitats.

These habitats are fast being destroyed by greedy developers, loggers and the tourist industry itself.

The AKF estimates that in 1996 alone, koalas generated 921 million U.S. dollars in revenues for the economy. The bulk of this came from foreign tourists who visited Australia especially to see or touch a koala at the many koala parks that have sprouted across the country in recent years.

This income translates into at least 9,000 jobs, says the conservation group which in July launched a report entitled ‘oalas and Tourism: An Economic Perspective’ in Brisbane.

In the report, AKF executive director Deborah Tabart accused Australian politicians and business leaders of ignoring one of the country’s most precious animals, leaving them exposed to the risk of extinction.

Thus far, she said: “The preservation of the species is seen by the community as the responsibility of the ‘greenies’.”

“We hope this study will make people realise that the koala’s conservation is everyone’s responsibility, including tour companies, airlines, hotels and anyone else enjoying the benefits of overseas tourism,” Tabart explained.

She asked: “What would happen to that annual income (of 821 million dollars) and those 9,000 jobs if the koalas were to become extinct?”

Commissioned by the AKF, the year-long study was undertaken by The Australia Institute and the University of Queensland. Its affixing of a dollar value to the koalas was the first systematic attempt to evaluate the economic role of this creature.

A major component of the study was a survey of 419 departing foreign tourists, mainly from Asia. The survey was conducted at the Sydney and Brisbane airports.

A quarter of them identified Australia’s unique wildlife as a major reason for visiting the country. Of the inbound tourists interviewed, 75 percent said they wanted to see a koala. Seventy percent of outbound tourists said they in fact saw one during their stay here.

Asked whether they would have changed their decision to come to Australia if its unique wildlife was not available, 11 percent said ‘yes’. It is this figure that was used to estimate the koala’s value to Australia’s tourism industry, worth 12 billion U.S. dollars a year.

“A large and rapidly growing part of the Australian economy has been built on the promotion of images of exotic fauna and outback expanses,” said Dr Clive Hamilton of The Australia Institute, joint author of the report.

“The future of the tourism industry depends heavily on the protection of our natural environment,” he added.

Looking like grey teddy bears, the koalas belong to the super- family of Vombatoidea. For most of the day, they sleep in a fork of a tree. They move about and feed at night, though most of their activity takes place just after sunset.

Koalas are skillful climbers, going up tree trunks by clasping them with the sharp claws of their ‘hands’ and then bringing the hindfeet up together in a bounding movement.

The koala’s popularity among foreign tourists and locals, who can cuddle them and be photographed holding them for between four to eight U.S. dollars in parks, alarms some conservationists and wildlife experts. The koalas, they fear, may well be loved to extinction.

For some time now, some conservationists and animal rights groups have been pressuring the government to introduce laws to restrict human handling of koalas in wildlife parks and zoos.

They say this handling for tourism purposes puts excessive and unnatural stress on the koalas, and is aggravated by all the chatter around. This, is nothing more than obscene exploitation of the animals by the tourism industry, they maintain.

However, states and the federal government have been reluctant to pass such laws. They fear the impact such laws would have on the lucrative tourism industry, though many state zoos are totally opposed to koala handling.

Meantime, the AKF has asked the government to fund an 11.2 million dollar programme to map the country’s koala population.

Tabart estimates there are less than 100,000 koalas in the country, their number being reduced by habitat destruction, dogs, pollution from car fumes and disease. But the government says there are millions of koalas and maintains they are not an endangered species.

Conservationiss have accused the government of approving development activties that directly affect large koala habitats.

In 1995, conservation groups tried to embarrass the Australian government by lobbying U.S. authorities to include koalas as an endangered species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This action was taken after the federal government gave the go-ahead for logging in 1,300 forests, which included habitats of koalas.

Likewise, conservation groups campaigned against the Queensland government before last year’s state elections to stop the building of a freeway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, which experts say would have slashed by half a major koala population in the area. The scheme was scrapped after the state’s Labour government lost office.

Though koalas contribute heavily to tourism coffers, Tabart says Australian business — even those in the tourism industry — do not fully understand the implications of losing wild koalas.

She says the logic is simple: “If you don’t have wild koalas, you won’t have captive koalas for very much longer.”

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AUSTRALIA: Cuddly Koalas May be Loved to Extinction

Kalinga Seneviratne

SYDNEY, Aug 4 1997 (IPS) - Perched on tree branches, munching on gumleaves and making no fuss, Australia’s koalas form the backbone of the country’s lucrative tourist industry.

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