Danielle Clode
Black Inc.   Rrp. 34.99

This is a very good book.  Indeed, Danielle Clode’s book ‘Koala’ is more than that:  it is a comprehensive scientific treatise on the koala, its history, currency, and future potential, told by a master storyteller with a highly personable touch.

I learnt a lot, and indeed with the exception of the most notable of koala experts, it is hard to imagine that any reader would not learn a lot. 

As well as a biologist and natural historian Danielle Clode is a natural storyteller.  She has a prevailing curiosity, a powerful ability to gather information from a diverse range of experts from paleantologists, historians, cave explorers, wildlife carers, ecologists, biologists and many others and weave all of this into a highly readable and vivid narrative.

Personally, I have been fascinated by wildlife and their habitat all of my life.  I am also very fortunate to be one of the few Australians who have seen a number of koalas in the wild, including on my own property.  However, in reading this book it became clear that there were many things I did not know about koalas.  

I did not know that there were once 20 different species of koala spread over time, including one that weighed in about 23 kilos.  I did not know that the oldest koala fossil found so far was 24 million years old, from a time when Australia looked very different to what it does now and had more soft leaved swampy rainforest which sustained the koala of that time as opposed to the eucalypt forests that our current koala has become so dependent on.

I did not know that the patterns of light and dark skin on koalas’ noses are as individually distinctive as their fingerprints, which, like our fingerprints, are unique to each individual. I did not know that koalas do not moult seasonally, which is why they are so vulnerable to increased climate temperatures and heat stress.

I did know that the surge of koala cuddly toys led to a mass slaughter of koalas themselves as their skins or pelts were the primary resource used to make the toys as well as fashion fur items such as gloves, hats and coats.  I did not know that 57,933 koala skins were exported in 1908 alone from Sydney despite all three eastern states having already declared koalas a protected species.  In Queensland it was even worse with records revealing that one million koala skins were ‘taken’ from one ‘hunting’ season dating from the 1st of April to the 30th of September 1919 and another 600,000 killed in just one month, August 1927.

Indeed, with echoes of what is happening today, Australian government legislation designed to protect the koala continued to fail dismally against the drive of capitalist industries until 1930, when the then president of the Wildlife Preservation Society, David Stead, appealed directly to US President Hoover to ban the importation of koala skins.

With this history it is an absolute miracle that any koalas are left at all today.

Nevertheless, this book includes hope for this most iconic of Australian animals, who alone has brought in millions of dollars of tourist dollars and wildlife conservation donations.

Actions by far-seeing individuals and wildlife organisations have led to thriving and disease-free koala populations on island refuges that then have been able to be returned to the mainland.   

I did not know that as a result of this conservation strategy South Australia now has a thriving koala population including along the regenerated River Torrens in urban Adelaide.  The successes of these strategies have now been declared the gold standard of wildlife conservation.

Despite this message of hope however, there are nevertheless fearful alarms on the future of the koala and the other wildlife that similarly depend on maintaining forest habitat.  We may not hunt them for their skins anymore to turn into cuddly toys and fashion items, but current state and national government legislation has similarly grimly failed to protect them as we continue to destroy and fragment their habitat.  Another thing I did not know but strongly suspected is that in the last 200 years we humans have reduced Australian forests to the smallest area that they have ever occupied.

Habitat fragmentation, road strikes, droughts, fires, disease escalated by stress and social crowding are all taking their inevitable toll.  Climate change with its increased severity of high temperatures, droughts and floods already is, and will continue to, wreck further devastation on their populations.

Our governments, both State and National, have promised to do more to save not only the koala but the current 1700 threatened and endangered species, a number predicted to escalate to Australia’s enormous shame.  We all live in hope that these wonderful ambitious proclamations are more than just headline generators and may in fact include effective real action and achieve their stated goals. However, as we continue to watch the habitat destruction in NSW and Queensland which now both rate as global hot spots for deforestation, and the increasing climate extremities, it is hard to hold that hope.  As Danielle Clode states – if we can’t protect our forests, we can’t protect koalas, let alone all of the other species at risk of extinction. 

 Meanwhile, similar to many ordinary Australians, Danielle Clode has taken action into her own hands and planted corridors of koala food trees that will, perhaps, maybe, just maybe, sustain koala and other species populations long after she has gone.  Most probably it is at the hands of the goodwill of ordinary Australians, that is you and me, that the koala, and all our other precious species, have the best hope.

Kym Kilpatrick

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