Koala: ‘Yes, mate, I’m cute. But there’s so much more to me than that!’

Wild Koala at Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve, Victoria, Australia

Koalas are special. They deserve not to be turned into pelts as they were at the turn of the century. Nor driven out of a hospitable habitat by human interference or climate change and put at the mercy of predators. And certainly not ‘cutified’ into real-life cuddle toys as many zoos and even so-called koala welfare centres are won’t to do. Here are some common misconceptions about these much-muahed creatures from the coastal areas of Eastern and Southern Australia…

Koalas are NOT bears!
As much as children’s books and cartoon films may have you believe that they’re ‘koala bears’, the fact is that cuddly-looking creature you see dozing up in the tree is a koala. It belongs to the variety of mammals called marsupials (one of the main differentiators is that the females have pouches inside which their babies — called Joeys — reside for almost 10 months after birth, with mamma’s milk and pap on tap).

Koalas are NOT chubby! 
In fact, Janine Duffy, who runs Echidna Walkabout Tours in Victoria state’s You Yangs and heads the Koala Clancy Foundation to save the Koalas, says that they’re “almost all muscle”. They’re tough and they can weigh up to about 15 kilos, of which less than five per cent is fat.

Koalas are NOT babies for life! 
Well, they may look like wide-eyed innocents but they’re grown ups and do what a lot of adults of all species do… eat, sleep, excrete and procreate. The fresh eucalyptus leaves that they eat almost 800 gms of daily contain toxins and cyanides and offer little nutrition, but they get their supply of water and food only from this source. Their digestive systems are specially equipped to deal with this toxic diet. Some of them do get high on certain types of eucalyptus and are known to fall out of the same gum trees that give them life and sustenance when stoned. And quite a few of them suffer sexually transmitted diseases like chlamydia too!

Wild Koala at Koala Conservation Centre, Victoria, Australia

Koalas are NOT duhhhh!
I won’t blame you if you think that they are lazy bums after seeing them squished up in the fork of a tree dozing for the better part of the day. But trust me, if you’ve heard the koala’s vociferous mating calls, you won’t forget the bellows and grunts in a hurry. These guys are the loudest among all Australian mammals. And as for sluggishness? Both koala ladies and gents can jump from tree to tree using their claws and opposable thumbs very adroitly.

Koalas are NOT cuddle-friendly!
Even though the Australian government spends a lot on arranging koala hugs for visiting dignitaries (remember the G20 summit in Brisbane in 2014 where everyone from then US President Obama to our own PM Modi were encouraged to indulge in some PDA with these cute animals by erstwhile Aussie PM Abbott?) and some places offer you koala-hugging experiences, don’t do it. Koalas don’t really like being hugged by strange humans and especially not when they are sleepy, which is about 20 hours of the day! So make sure you don’t traumatise the teddy-bear lookalikes for the sake of that selfie.

DID YOU KNOW?

  • Every koala has a unique nose pattern that distinguishes it from other koalas much like the fingerprint does for humans. 
  • Male koalas have scent glands on their chests that rub against the tree trunks to mark their territory.
  • They hug tree branches to transfer their body heat and cool off. 
  • The fur on their rump is extra dense to give koalas a natural cushion to rest on up in the trees. 
  • The name koala comes from the aboriginal words for ‘no water’ as these animals get almost all their fluids from the eucalyptus leaves and are rarely seen drinking water.

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