NEW YORK — The Australian koala and big business are becoming fast friends.
The cuddly koala, its limited habitat threatened by encroaching development, is getting a financial hand from corporate sponsors who, in turn, are reaping a public relations bonanza.
"The important thing I've found is that corporate support means credibility," said Debbie Tabart, executive director of the Australian Koala Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to saving the animal.
Only 400,000 koalas survive from the millions that inhabited Australia early in the century. Among other things, the foundation funds research on the koala's habit.
"In Australia, conservation groups are so diametrically opposed to business that it's incredible," Tabart said. "Businesses tend not to be involved with (conservation groups) because they think they're going to blow up a ship or stand in front of a bulldozer."
So far, corporate sponsors include Upjohn Co. of Kalamazoo, Mich.; Hallmark Cards Inc. of Kansas City, Mo.; Westpac Banking Corp. of Sydney, Qantas Airways Ltd. of Sydney and dozens of smaller Australian companies. Tabart set a limited fund-raising goal of $5 million in the United States.
"We're very interested in the foundation because we think they're a very rational green group," said Joe Heywood, a spokesman for Upjohn. "Unlike many organizations of this kind, they don't have unlimited goals. They want to raise $5 million, put it in a bank and use the interest for research."
Many of the foundation's sponsors donate services as well as money. Another method of support popular with companies is a co-marketing arrangement in which a company uses the foundation logo, which pictures a koala, on its packages. The companies generally donate a few cents for each package carrying the foundation logo, Tabart said.
"We now have about 30 million items with our logo on it which we get royalties from," she said.
Qantas Airways donated $60,000 in flights, support that helped set up the Friends of the Australian Koala Foundation in New York, Tabart said.
Singer Olivia Newton-John is lending a hand with televised public service spots to promote fund-raising for the Friends. The spots began running on U.S. television this fall.
Hallmark paid a $20,000 royalty to use the foundation logo on a series of 16 greeting cards distributed in Australia this year by its subsidiary Hallmark Cards Australia Ltd., Hallmark spokeswoman Rachel Bolton said. The cards are to begin appearing in November in about 300 stores.
One of the biggest problems the koala faces today is venereal disease.
"An estimated 40% of our koalas are affected by chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease that has reached epidemic proportions," Tabart said. "Initial research has found that chlamydia is responsible for blindness, female infertility, pneumonia and bladder infections in our koalas."
The koalas eat only leaves from certain types of eucalyptus trees and live only in the branches of those trees, which are found primarily in areas of Eastern Australia heavily populated by humans, Tabart said. Koalas are suffering from malnutrition in areas where large numbers of eucalyptus trees have been cut down to make way for human expansion.
The koala is a marsupial; its scientific name, Phascolarctos cinereus, means "pouched bear." It is a nocturnal animal, spending most of the daylight hours sleeping or dozing in eucalyptus trees.
In Australia this year, the foundation launched the Joint Regional Koala Habitat Project, in which the city governments of Brisbane, Logan and Redlands, the Department of Lands, Department of Environment and Heritage, and the Australian Koala Foundation are cooperating to help protect valuable koala habitat in an area encompassing about 39 square miles.