SAN DIEGO — It's probably best that Dinki Di, Bami, Gidgee, Mary Quinn and the other koalas at the San Diego Zoo won't be making any phone calls to their ancestral home in Australia: The family news would not be good.
Suddenly, the cuddly looking koala, whose charisma among animal lovers ranks second only to pandas, may be on the verge of becoming an endangered species.
The San Diego Zoo, which is involved in habitat preservation for numerous species around the globe, recently sent a team of koala experts into the bush of New South Wales to evaluate the eucalyptus groves that are home to the koala. The zoo has more experience and expertise with koalas than any zoo outside Australia.
What the team found shocked them. The eucalyptus groves--koalas eat nothing but eucalyptus leaves--are disappearing faster than you can say shopping mall and subdivision.
The nonprofit Australian Koala Foundation estimates that 80% of the koala's natural habitat has been destroyed and that in the last decade the number of koalas has declined 50%.
"When you think of endangered species, you think of burning rain forests in Brazil, poachers in Africa, or the panda in China," foundation Executive Director Deborah Tabart said in an interview from Brisbane, Australia. "But with the koala, it's urbanization, hotels and beachfront resorts."
Brush fires that burned 1.2 million acres in Australia in January added to the koala's worsening plight. For 10 days, 150 fires raged out of control.
The fires prompted the San Diegans to go to Australia as part of the most extensive koala habitat inspection ever undertaken. The koala is native only to Australia.
"What we found was pretty amazing," said Valerie Thompson, an assistant curator of mammals at the San Diego Zoo, which, with 42 of the furry marsupials, has the largest collection of koalas outside Australia.
First, there were not as many koala carcasses in the burned-out regions as expected, a sign that the koala population had not been as high as thought.
Second, the rapid development in the koala area shows no signs of letting up. It has been illegal to kill a koala in Australia since 1936--after pelt hunters slaughtered 3 million koalas in the 1920s--but 80% of koala territory is owned privately and subject to development.
"Once they come down from their trees, the koalas are getting hit by cars and killed by dogs and have even been drowned in swimming pools," Thompson said. "These are hazards the animals just cannot adapt to."
Some conservation measures have been taken: koala crossing signs on roads, a koala tunnel under a major new freeway, and a Save the Bush program that encourages the conservation of eucalyptus groves. The Brisbane Sheraton Hotel puts a $1 surcharge on all bills to aid koala preservation.
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is studying whether to list the koala as an endangered species. By throwing the agency's international prestige behind the koala conservation effort, it could pressure the Australians to be more vigilant.
The agency sometimes lists non-native animals on its endangered list to give the U.S. government greater authority to block the importation of the animals into this country, on the theory that the international swapping of animals can hasten a species' demise.
In Australia, the koala is listed as vulnerable but not yet endangered in the state of New South Wales--and as plentiful in the states of Queensland and Victoria--under that country's endangered species act, which took effect only last year. (The koala has been extinct in the state of South Australia since the slaughter of the 1920s).
Tabart says that the Australian government has been negligent in not moving quicker to protect the koala habitat from urban sprawl, and says that by the time the koala is listed as an endangered species it may be too late to save it.
"Every time there has been a collision between development and the koala, the koala has lost," she said.
Jim Crennan, director of the endangered species division of the Australian Nature Conservation Agency, the Australian government's equivalent to the Fish & Wildlife Service, shares Tabart's zeal to save the koala but thinks she is not giving the government enough credit.
In September, Crennan said, the Australian and New Zealand Environmental and Conservation Council, a gathering of local, territory and commonwealth officials, decided to form a save-the-koala task force to find national solutions.
There are political problems, however.
Unlike the federal government of the United States, the commonwealth government in Australia cannot order industry to stop chopping down trees on private property. The koala is protected, but the eucalyptus tree is fair game.
The contingent from the San Diego Zoo went to Australia to assist with the Australian Koala Foundation's project to not only assess the koala's habitat but also to produce a definitive map of where the koalas live. The mapping effort is being assisted by satellite tracking.