Australia's French Island: Land of the Cuddly Koala

Conservationists wrestle with the growing population of these furry marsupials

It doesn't take long to find the first koala.

Only minutes after getting off the ferry from the mainland, ranger Alan Pullen points to one of the "teddies" high in a eucalyptus tree. It's camera shy. But no worries mates, there are more koalas around - some who would just as soon be film stars.

There's "Big Red," for example, a 10- or 12-year-old male who is waiting for a photographer on a young tree. There's no need for a long lens or an appointment. Red just sits there, acting as if he's been waiting to be discovered.

"He knows the ropes. He's an old friend," says Mr. Pullen, the head ranger at French Island State Park, a reserve on the island, managed by the Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

The island, named for the country of France, could well be renamed Koala Island. Pullen estimates there are about 800 of the furry marsupials wedging themselves in the tree branches.

The leaves, which are toxic to most other animals, give the nocturnal animals water as well as food. The current population is about all the island can maintain without the destruction of its eucalyptus trees, says Pullen as he points to a dead tree - all its leaves eaten by the koalas.

There is no question that koalas - which are not bears, incidentally - can reproduce quickly. The French Island koalas arrived in the 1870s when a sealer gave six of the marsupials to his girlfriend. By the 1920s, those six koalas had multiplied to thousands. There would be as many as 18 of the cuddly-looking marsupials in one tree. "If they are not controlled, the population doubles every three years," says Pullen.

To keep the population in check, Pullen has experimented with vasectomies for the males. Now, he's working on female sterilization.

In the '20s, the island solved the overpopulation crisis by exporting koalas to Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia. The eucalyptus trees are similar to the trees on French Island so the transfer worked. But, sending the koalas to other areas might not work since they are such finicky eaters. Even so, Pullen tries to remove about 150 animals per year to other koala-friendly areas.

When the British discovered Australia, there were millions of koalas. The animals are considered one of the oldest marsupials, dating back more than 50 million years. The English decided to hunt them, however, for their pelts.

On the mainland, they are endangered by development. Although there has been no census, Ken Phillips, a New York-based koala expert, estimates there are only 30,000 left.

But Kangaroo Island, with its 5,000 koalas, is now overpopulated and the South Australian government plans to ship some off the island. Pullen and Mick Douglas, another ranger, are planning a trip there to teach the rangers how to lasso the animals.

Rounding up koalas is not an easy task. Pullen and Mr. Douglas demonstrate the art by pulling out a long aluminum pole tipped with a red cloth. They find a koala high up in a tree and dangle the cloth in front of the animal. It growls and takes a swing at the intruder. Finally, it starts to back down the tree until it gets to a fork and adroitly leaps to another limb. Before the rangers can get the pole over to the next limb, the koala is climbing again.

"Young koalas can jump six to eight feet at a time," Pullen says.

Once the koala is within grasp, the rangers have to move carefully, since the animals can bite and scratch. Both have scars from the long claws. They have also learned to avoid the koalas' scent gland, which the animal uses to mark its territory. "It's a very pungent, deep eucalyptus smell and you can't wash it off," says Douglas.

The koalas can also be noisy. At night they make deep grunting sounds. And, when Pullen tries to get a young female within lens-range, she makes a high pitched distress sound. "All the males will be coming over here to try to help her," he says.

With all those koalas on the march, it's probably better to leave the island to the animals. So, photographer and reporter catch a ferry back to the mainland.

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