Save the koala: put it on the Pill

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The Independent Online
Koala bears, it turns out, are too cuddly for their own good. They are so fond of hugging one another that their population has exploded, threatening the eucalyptus tree habitat which sustains them.

Plans were announced yesterday in Victoria, Australia's second largest state, to curb their numbers by giving them vasectomies and a version of the birth control pill. The state minister for conservation and land management, Marie Tehan, said: "If we don't face up to this issue, several areas will suffer long-term ecological damage and koalas will starve."

The tiny bears, second only to kangaroos as an Australian emblem, have had a chequered history since Europeans arrived 200 years ago. In the last century they were hunted for their fur almost to extinction. More recently, as their colonies have revived under protective legislation, political battles have been fought across state lines over their status.

New South Wales last year tried to ban tourists from cuddling koalas because such handling is believed to cause the animals stress. The plans were quietly dropped when it was realised that Japanese tourists, who represent a multi-million-dollar industry and for whom koalas are one of Australia's biggest draws, would flock instead to Queensland where there is no cuddling ban.

The average koala bear is a lazy, gentle creature that spends most of its life at the tops of eucalyptus trees, foraging for leaves at night and dozing by day. Each koala eats about half a kilogram of leaves a day.

Therein lies the problem: as Australia's human population has expanded into traditional koala habitats along the east coast, demand for eucalyptus leaves is outstripping supply.

If yesterday's plan goes ahead, wildlife officials will have little trouble administering the pill and vasectomies. The marsupials' gorging of eucalyptus oil is thought to make them "high", leaving them slow and easy to catch.