Among the several heart-rending images from the bush fires sweeping through Australia’s forests is that of a koala clutching at a bottle of water offered by firefighters. The animal in the image is amongst the lucky few that escaped the inferno, clinging to rescuers. The fire has claimed thousands of koalas in Australia’s forests — at least half of the animals in Kangaroo Island Sanctuary, a key insurance for its future, are feared dead. The much-loved marsupial is currently categorised as vulnerable in Australia. But with 30 per cent of the koala habitat being ravaged by fires, the Australian government is reportedly contemplating declaring the country’s iconic animal as “endangered”.
The koala has a long history of being misunderstood by humans. Confounded by the richness of Australasia’s animal kingdom, early 19th century European naturalists debated whether the furry eyed, spoony-nosed arboreal creature was a sloth or a monkey and pronounced it as Phascolarctos cinereus or the pouch-bearing ash-coloured bear — the animal actually shares much more with the kangaroo and the wombat. The errors in taxonomy were, however, benign compared to what the koalas faced when European settlers made their home in Australia. At least eight million koalas were killed and their pelts were shipped to London and cities in the US and Canada between 1880 and 1920.
In the second half of the 20th century, koala tourism re-imagined the marsupial as a cute creature on the lookout for human affection. But recent research has shown that in their natural habitats, koalas are shy creatures who prefer to be left alone on eucalyptus trees. The trees are among the most fire-adapted vegetation on Earth. The trouble, however, is that during times of climate change, they do not offer sanctuary for the koala.