Koalas threatened by disease, habitat loss

DIRE OUTLOOK: Human development encroaching on animal's territories and competition for food has forced koalas to live closer together, leading to more cases of a sexually transmitted disease. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE


    Jun 07, 2016

    Koalas threatened by disease, habitat loss


    A SWEET, sickly smell filled the air as Sherwood Robyn, a 12-year-old koala, was brought into a small examination room at Australia's first hospital for the furry marsupials.

    A close inspection revealed a "wet bottom" - a clear sign of the chlamydia infection which is ravaging Australia's iconic native animal.

    With no cure, Robyn is experiencing advanced stages of the sexually transmitted disease and will likely die a painful death within months, vets say.

    The spread and impact of the disease have been exacerbated by human development encroaching the animals' territory, said Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie.

    "It's driven by pressure on the animals, when there's a disturbed habitat... they're forced to live closer together, which gives us more interaction between the animals," she said.

    This causes the disease to spread rapidly, Ms Flanagan added, saying that increased competition for territory and food can add to the problem.

    The prognosis for Robyn mirrors the dire outlook for koala populations on Australia's east coast as habitat loss, dog attacks, car strikes, climate change and disease take their toll.

    While there were believed to be more than 10 million koalas before British settlers arrived in 1788, a 2012 national count placed their total number at around 330,000.

    In parts of Queensland, koalas are "effectively extinct" a recent study by the state university found. In New South Wales the marsupial's numbers have plunged more than 30 per cent since 1990.

    Both regions - along with the Australian Capital Territory - have listed the animal as "vulnerable" to extinction.

    Damien Higgins, head of the Koala Health Hub at the University of Sydney, said he is not optimistic about the animal's prospects for survival.

    "Development is continuing... and while people want to live where koalas live... and mine where koalas live, they're going to be in trouble," he said.