It's another bad news day: Australia's koalas are dying off. AIDS. Really.
In the last six years, according to the Australian Koala Foundation, the population of the cuddly marsupial in the wild has dropped from more than 100,000 to fewer than 43,000.
A disease called Koala Immune Deficiency Syndrome has been positively identified by Dr. Jon Hanger, head veterinary scientist for the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. He told CNN it's just as severe as AIDS in humans, but does its deadly work faster in the koala. "It's knocking off a large proportion of koalas that come into this hospital and that means a large number in the bush are dying, too," he said.
I remember watching the koala exhibit in the Australian Zoo with our friend Jeanie, who wouldn't eat our fresh-caught bluefish one day on Cape Cod because she'd been charmed by their eyes when we caught them. That kind of animal lover. We might never have dragged her away from the koala exhibit, except that a passer-by mentioned the butterfly house where, if you stood perfectly still, one might perch on your nose. This was after we'd struggled through a horde of Nikon-toting tourists to catch a glimpse of the pygmy penguins coming in from the sea southwest of Melbourne. Please, Jack, don't let Jeanie read this!
Dr. Hanger said, “There is no vaccine available now and may never be, but what it’s saying to us is that we need to be very careful about the way we manage the population. We have to stop destroying habitat and fragmenting it and we’ve got to address all the causes of death.”
In an official snit it can only have learned from American Republicans, the Australian government refuses to give the koala endangered species protection under the law. The Spotted Owl Syndrome. What would the extraction and development industries do if we protected wildlife?
Koalas are losing their homes in the eucalyptus forests, being injured by cars and animals moving into their areas and dying from sexually transmitted diseases. The marsupials seem to be particularly susceptible to Chlamydia. The disease affects their eyesight, urinary tract and leaves them infertile. It also causes a slow, painful death.
The Ozzies might consider bringing James Dobson over to teach koala abstinence, but that would be counter-productive. Can you imagine trying to artificially inseminate a koala?
Two professors from the Queensland University of Technology are working on a vaccine for Koala Chlamydia. Peter Timms and Ken Beagley estimate that, “As many as 25-50 percent of koalas coming into care in both Queensland and New South Wales are showing clinical signs of the disease and it seems to be getting worse.”
Dr. Hanger isn't optimistic. “Extinction is inevitable in some areas” he said. “I certainly hope we don’t see it across Australia. But if we don’t take the decline seriously and pick up on the warning signs now it’s certainly a risk.”
In animal-loving France, the news fell like the knell of doom. Jean Claude heard about the koala while lunching in a bistro in Clermont-l'Herault. "An Australia without koalas," he said, "would be like a meal without wine."