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Australia's Disappearing Koalas

Animal lover Ken Phillips is raising money and awareness to preserve the threatened habitat of these ancient marsupials

By Ron SchererStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 1995



NEW YORK

Like most people, Ken Phillips has photos of his family in his study. There is a shot of Mr. Phillips holding a cuddly-looking Terry Glen. In another, he holds Clancy. Both cling to him like babies. What makes these photos different is that they are pictures of koalas -- the Australian marsupials.

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''People call them my children,'' Phillips says.

That Phillips considers koalas his family is not surprising. He has spent the last 10 years raising money for a koala hospital from his Fifth Avenue office. Phillips, who has perfect pitch, says his grunts are close enough to a koala's noises to bring the animals down from their eucalyptus trees for a better look. When viewed up close, Phillips claims the animals have distinct personalities.

When koalas want to be friendly, Phillips says, they will rub noses. If they are afraid, they may leave a too-curious person with a nasty scratch.

Now, Phillips has put a lot of his knowledge and love of the marsupials into a new book, ''Koalas: Australia's Ancient Ones'' (Macmillan, $27.50). He is donating the proceeds to the Port Macquarie, New South Wales, koala hospital that cares for animals that have been hit by cars or caught in brush fires.

The koalas, Phillips is quick to say, are ''one of the oldest extant marsupials,'' dating back more than 50 million years. Koala fossils have been found in Argentina, indicating that the species roamed the planet before the continents separated.

At one time there were millions of koalas in Australia. Once the British discovered the country, however, they began killing the animals for their fur. ''That culling was the beginning of the end,'' Phillips says.

There has never been a population study, but Phillips estimates that only 30,000 koalas remain. Although the Australian government does not officially consider the animals endangered, Phillips does. ''What you need to know is that they mate only once a year and many of those matings don't produce anything,'' he explains.

Although koalas are not hunted any more, they are now threatened by developments springing up in place of eucalyptus forests. Koala watchers have found that the marsupials follow specific corridors. Even when a house is built in the middle of a corridor, the koala continues to wander through, often with deadly results.

For example, koalas often fall into swimming pools and drown since they are unable to climb out of the pools. Koala sympathizers have attempted to get homeowners to put ropes across their pools so koalas can pull themselves out.

PHILLIPS points out, however, that interrupting the corridors also disrupts the koalas' natural mating process. Although koalas are solitary animals, they have developed a complex social behavior that relies on a dominant male's establishment of territory. The males do this by marking trees with a scent gland that secretes an oil that smells like eucalyptus.

When the male goes looking for food trees, he often walks along the highways. Since koalas are nocturnal, they may be blinded by automobile headlights. Phillips says the koala hospital gets about one call each day from a motorist who is reporting an injured koala.

Development is not the only danger to the animals. Late last year, scores of forest fires raged through koala areas in New South Wales and Queensland. The koala hospital suddenly found itself overrun with 130 animals that had been burned. They had to build extra recovery yards for the animals.

The fires not only burned the animals, the smoke impaired the koala's keen sense of smell. This can result in koalas' starving, since they sniff everything before eating it. Consuming the wrong species of eucalyptus will kill the animal.

No matter how many koalas the hospital saves, Phillips says the effort is ultimately futile unless more land is set aside as koala habitat. ''If some private individual, foundation, or government agency would make some funds available for the purchase of land, that would help,'' he states. He adds, however, that most of the land is now gone. Volunteers are now planting trees in the hope of providing more food for koalas in existing forests.

For the most part, Australians love the animals. Thousands of Australian children follow the adventures of Blinky Bill, a mischievous little koala, in a series of books. But Phillips warns that, if present trends continue, in 10 years' time there will be neither home nor food for the animals.