BookShelf: Koalas, Under Pressure From Wildfires and Development, Are Beloved But Undefended
"Koala: A Natural History and an Uncertain Future"
By Danielle Clode
W.W. Norton & Co, $27.95
Reviewed by Melody Kemp
Many years ago, while traveling in the Australian bush, I became aware that I had consumed a few too many beers with the pub lunch and just had to … well, you know.
I chose a spot well off the road, lowered the trews and let go … until an equally yellow stream, accompanied by a very loud but low guttural growl came from above.
Pulling up my strides, I looked up and there was a large koala scowling at me.
What I learned from reading “Koala,” is that he could have been just sending out a signal that he was ready to rock and roll and making sure there were no other males in the vicinity. Maybe he mistook my wild hair for koala fur.
An animal in danger
I start with this event to prepare potential readers for a book that explores in basic language the animal’s biology, such as the importance of excrement in preparing joeys immunologically for adult life, koala sex, and — oh — bottoms.
Author Danielle Clode combines science and scat in a way that hooks the reader in.
Her curiosity and delight give her writing the energy to get over the fact that this animal is in danger. I love the book as much as I love the animal.
But I wonder if, like many writers, Clode is merely preaching to the converted. Will it make any difference to the rate at which habitat is converted to huge treeless suburbs? Or the number of koalas being driven to coastal enclaves where they are infected with Japanese encephalitis and Ross River virus?
Because the truth is, koalas are
consciously more beloved out of
the country than they are within.
International readership and pressures might change things. Because the truth is, koalas are consciously more beloved out of the country than they are within.
They are close to extinction in Queensland, where I live, in next door New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory. The reasons are many. Habitat destruction leads the list, and surprised as you may be, clearing native bush is still legally allowed under Australian law.
Ever-present bushfires are, of course, another reason. The BBC even suggested that cattle can mistake them for dogs, attack and inevitably kill them.
As a senior veterinarian at an Australian zoo told me many years ago: “Humans and koalas both enjoy coastal forests; but it's only humans who destroy the forest for housing development.”
Even now, being aware of the diminishing numbers, the state government hands out real estate deals, for which, of course, they get the inevitable kickback.
The irony is that in other states, like Victoria and South Australia, koalas are dying from overpopulation and chlamydia and, no, they can’t be relocated, as they are genetically different.
Cuteness belies social intelligence
This book is both hugely entertaining but more importantly it’s informative. Clode’s love for koalas is obvious as is her interest in their behavior and origins, comparative anatomy and physiology.
She bravely takes on those who claim that life in the trees, chewing toxic eucalyptus leaves, leaves the unbelievably cute marsupials vulnerable.
“In the evolutionary race to supremacy, koalas are regularly pitched as having made a poor choice. Like pandas, they are regarded as cute but dumb,” she wrote.
As it turns out, marsupials may not be
the smartest beasts on the block but
indicate intelligence in social behavior.
As it turns out, marsupials may not be the smartest beasts on the block but indicate intelligence in social behavior.
Clode, a biologist and natural historian based at Flinders University in South Australia, supports her myth-busting with many stories, such as one about a koala that hitched a lift on a river-crossing dinghy.
“Sitting very comfortably astern, it was at home with the people on board,” she wrote. “It casually clambered out and swam to shore without obvious fear. That is, the koala appears to be able to weigh risk. They like to nose bump anyone whom they trust.”
Clode concludes on a subtle but depressing note.
“When I was young and we had bushfires, we waited as inevitably nature restored itself with a slightly mismatched array of weed trees but overwhelmingly determined original species, that is, there would be enough edible species to keep wildlife hidden, alive and thriving,” she wrote. “That is not the case now. Farming (cash crops and livestock), mining, city sprawls with their excessive housing means weeds can predominate. The bush needs to be reconstructed by planting and deliberate weed control.”
I only hope that this book does not amount to a requiem for this creature with a lineage of 24 million years. As I write, I look out my own window in Australia to distant hills and forest. Clouds of white smoke are rising above the fringing suburbs. Another fire — more habitat lost.
[Editor’s Note: Australian-based contributor Melody Kemp reviewed the Australian release of this book, “Koala: A Life in Trees,” which was published by Black, Inc., and released on Oct. 4, 2022. The international W.W. Norton edition was released on Jan. 17, 2023.]
Melody Kemp is a member of Society of Environmental Journalists based in Australia.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 7. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.