The Picture Show
11:11 am
Wed May 2, 2012

Koalas Are So Cute! (And Threatened)

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 9:50 am

Koalas: They're downright adorable, and that's obvious. (Don't even try to suppress the high-pitched coo.)

"They're pretty much exactly what you think," admits National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, who was on assignment in Australia last October for a story in the magazine's current issue.

Except — his job was to photograph a scene that isn't so cute. In fact, a bit of an editor's note: Some of these photos are kind of grisly to look at. "The goal," he says, "was to tell the story of the plight of the koala in the northern half of Australia."

So what's causing this "plight," exactly? Well, somewhat obviously, it's us.

"You think we're developing stuff here [in the States]," Sartore says over the phone, "you should go to Australia. Koalas can't take it. They're not fast; they can't defend themselves against dogs and against traffic."

Some research shows that we humans almost can't help but find koalas cute; and that, to a degree, might work in their favor toward survival.

But they're just not the brightest crayons in the box. They need about 20 hours of sleep in order to live off their nutrient-deprived diet of eucalyptus. They also, obviously, need trees. So when eucalyptus is wiped away in huge swaths for development, koalas aren't smart or fast enough to relocate.

Though it's tempting to fantasize about having these cuddly creatures in your front yard, the reality (and it has become a reality) seems a lot less enchanting. You can read more about it, and what rescue groups are doing for koalas, in the article.

But there's a silver lining. This past Monday, certain koalas in Australia's northern regions, were officially recognized by the government as "threatened species."

"Koala populations are under serious threat from habitat loss and urban expansion," the official news release reads, "as well as vehicle strikes, dog attacks and disease."

According to Sartore, that's a step in the right direction.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.