“The Bear Facts”

By Geisha Bar

Time to pay homage to that cuddly Aussie icon with the funny ears as our national symbol was again in the news last week with another bunch of test tube joeys (yes that is the name for them) popped into being and given that there are less than 100,000 in the wild, the furry tadpoles from the koala sperm bank better keep swimming hard upstream

It’s hard to imagine but there were once millions of koalas roaming the temperate regions of Australia, although roaming is somewhat of an exaggeration as this furry marsupial spends 74% of its 18yr life in slumber. It’s not that they are lazy per say, it’s just that they exist exclusively on a low nutrition diet of eucalyptus leaves, consuming 1kg per day. They hardly ever drink water; gaining most of their fluids from the leaves they eat thus the aboriginal name “koala” which means “no drink”

Until the 1930’s when they became a protected species, koalas were once used for target practice and their pelts sold for garments. In 1924 alone 2.1 million pelts were exported. Sitting dormant in trees and prone to minimal movement, even the most stupid gap toothed convict collected a mighty bounty and in some parts of Australia this beautiful creature was wiped out completely.

Ironically in this “green” age humans are still koala’s biggest enemy. Be it clearing land, starting fires, cars squashing them or allowing man’s best friend, the dog, to tear them to shreds, 4000 furies are killed each year. Over a lifetime a koala never strays far from its home trees and they are very territorial about their eucalyptus chalets. Koalas are solitary animals and if their home is cleared or destroyed they aren’t welcome in a neighbour’s tree. This may seem unreasonable, but would you let the family next door move in with their “Whispering Jack” CD’s and their “Friends” DVD collection ?

With no tree to shelter koalas are hapless prey on the ground whilst bushfire is a koala’s worst nightmare (closely followed by John Farnham records).  They are not built for speed and rarely escape the ravaging flame but these little cuties have been known to fight the good fight, using their talons to scratch with enthusiastic vigour and when nature calls, which is often, they are prone to urinate anywhere and everywhere.

A short time ago in Rockhampton, Queensland some would be burglars thought they’d steal a koala from a wildlife sanctuary and sell it for drugs. The only problem was that the koala wasn’t keen on being traded for contraband and inflicted severe lacerations on the hapless crims, so much so they decided to steal the 1.4 metre Crocodile instead. The reptile fought hard but it was a pussy compared to the little marsupial.

And the age old question…..why are they called “bears” when they are marsupials with more in common with the wombat and the kangaroo?  Well there are two reasons. The early settlers in Australia called them teddy bears because they looked so cute (and then killed them) and the scientific name for the koala is “Phascolarctos Cinereus” which means ash coloured pouch bear.

Just gazing at a koala makes my heart melt. I think of its puffy ears, woollen jumper and little black nose, but I’m also partial to the Caramello variety with its sweet centre. I love the koala’s quintessential Ausie-ness, not because it’s native to us but because of its laid back attitude, tempered with a willingness to have a “crack” when in danger.

Hopefully the baby cane toad known as Bindy Irwin will poke one koala too many and the talons will be bared….my money is on the furry one