National Geographic : 2012 May
A phone rings in the home of Megan Aitken in Burpengary, a suburb north of Brisbane. Aitken, 42, runs a volunteer organization devoted to res- cuing wild koalas from a surprisingly wide array of hazards. Before the dispatcher has even given her the location, she has thrown her clothes on over her pajamas. When Aitken arrives on the scene, Jane Davies and Sandra Peachey, two other volunteers, are already there. e koala is clinging to a chain- link fence, its fur snagged in horizontal strands of barbed wire. Towering eucalyptus trees, as pale as ghosts, rise on the far side of the fence. "He was obviously trying to get to the trees on the other side," Aitken says. Standing in the bright cones of car headlights, Aitken pulls on heavy leather welding gloves. Despite their huggable, stu ed-animal appear- ance, koalas can be ferocious when resisting capture. ey'll growl, ail, ght, and bite like angry raccoons, and Aitken has the scars to prove it. Next she places a wire cage on the ground near the animal and opens up a thick blanket. en the three rescuers rapidly get to work. Davies throws the blanket over the animal, both to calm it and to protect the rescuers from its teeth and claws. Peachey opens the lid of the cage, while Aitken rmly grasps the little black- nosed beast through the blanket, frees it from the fence, and drops it snarling and snapping into the cage. "Well done, ladies!" Aitken shouts. Looking down at the round-eyed koala they've just captured, Aitken considers a new problem. If this koala were sick or injured, they'd take it to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, 40 minutes north in Beerwah. But the animal is healthy. By protocol they must release it some- where nearby, since koalas have a home range and feed in the same trees over and over. Yet this is Deception Bay, a densely populated suburb. e women study a street map with ashlights. "This is the whole problem," Aitken says, exasperated. "There are so few places left for the koala." In the end they take the animal sev- eral blocks to tiny Boama Park, which borders a stretch of open land reaching all the way to the beach. Deep in the night the women carry the cage through the trees, setting it below a gray- skinned eucalyptus. Standing back, they spring the lid of the cage, and the koala dashes up the trunk and disappears. "Good luck, little one," Aitken says. It will take a lot more than luck. e koala, cuddly symbol of a nation and one of the most beloved animals on the planet, is in crisis. Before Europeans settled Australia more than two centuries ago, about ten million koalas lived in a 1,500-mile-long swath of the east coast eucalyptus forests. Hunted for their luxurious fur, koalas were brought to the edge of extinction in the southern half of their range. In the northern half, Queensland, a million were killed in 1919 alone. A er the last open season in Queensland was held in 1927, only tens of thousands remained. rough the next half century their numbers slowly rebounded, in part due to e orts to re- locate and recolonize them. en urbanization began to take its toll. Habitat was lost, and dis- eases spread. With urbanization came the threat of dogs and highways. Since 1990, when about 430,000 koalas inhabited Australia, their numbers have dropped sharply. Because surveys are di - cult, current population estimates vary widely--- from a low of 44,000 by advocacy groups to a high of 300,000 by government agencies. More IT'S TWO IN THE MORNING AND A KOALA IS CAUGHT IN BARBED WIRE ON A FENCE, LIKE A PRISONER TRYING TO ESCAPE. Mark Jenkins is a contributing writer. Photographer Joel Sartore authored the National Geographic book Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species.