Koalas are a bit like very old people.
They don’t like rap, heavy metal or doof-doof music. They don’t like it played too loud either. They don’t like kids jumping out from behind doors and yelling “Surprise!” They don’t like people driving too fast, or running around the house. They don’t like sudden changes.
On tour we explain to our younger guests that they should treat a wild koala like they treat their great-grandmother. Slowly ….. quietly …… gently. Of course, this is mostly a bit of fun. Koalas might like rap music for all I know! But it’s something that our smaller guests understand.
Over the years we have noticed that some human behaviour causes koalas to respond negatively. So we formulated some Wild Koala Etiquette that helps everyone enjoy the experience:
[click the subheadings for more information]
NEVER touch the tree a koala is sitting in: this was our first rule.
– if you suddenly find a koala right above you, move away immediately.
We have noticed that a sleeping koala will look up if their tree is touched, even when they are high and the tree is touched quite gently. We believe that the tree itself is that koala’s personal space for the day, and touching it is a form of trespass. Also, two of the koala’s few predators – man and goannas – would have climbed to reach a koala, so anything large touching their tree should provoke a reaction.
In 2009 Janine had this point reinforced. She was concerned about the health of one of the You Yangs koalas – Mary, an older female. She was sitting quite low in a tree fork. Janine put a free-standing ladder beside the tree and climbed to her height to visually examine her. From arm’s length away she looked her over without touching her or the tree.
Mary looked at her calmly but returned quickly to resting (she had known Janine for years). Later, for some stability, Janine leaned against the tree, and immediately Mary's reaction changed. She sat up, eyes wide, barked once and climbed up the branch quickly. For a moment Janine thought she was going to strike. When Janine touched the tree she was no closer to her than she had been earlier.
Maintain a distance of 10 metres (horizontal) from any wild koala.
Even without touching the tree, a wild koala can become distressed if humans approach too close. Unhabituated koalas often wake up, become very rigid and will sometimes climb higher when humans approach.
So we have formulated this rule as a basic safe and respectful distance.
Do not surround a koala’s tree. Ideally, all humans viewing should remain together in a group to avoid causing the koala stress.
Very nervous koalas will often move their body so the tree is between you and them. It may be a form of protection.
If people are in all directions, the koala finds this very difficult to achieve. Less nervous koalas will still look in the direction of the humans on the ground, and if those humans are in all directions the koala keeps looking from side to side.
For an animal on a low-energy diet, this activity is a waste of their precious resources.
Avoid excessive movement or noise around wild koalas. They are sensitive to disturbance.
As mentioned in the point above, a nervous koala will move their body away from a human. We have also noticed that if a large group of humans stays still in one location and one human walks to the other side of the tree, the koala will move away from the moving human.
It may be partly the noise – though in the case mentioned, the stationary humans continued to talk – or it may be the movement.
Do NOT try to get the animal’s attention by making noises. This may work once, but ...
Over time it will cause the koala stress and it may choose to hide from you/others next time you/they appear. This also gives inaccurate data on koala behaviour.
This is so tempting, and people do it a lot. It may work, once or twice. But how many times has that happened to that koala? And each time it doesn’t work, does someone make a louder noise? Or shake the tree, or throw something at the “unco-operative” koala? This is totally unacceptable of course, but it starts with a small disturbance and builds.
For us, visiting the same koalas on a regular basis, we have to develop a positive, or at least benign, relationship with these koalas. They are quite capable of avoiding our attention if they choose.
So we try to avoid disturbing the koala. Echidna Walkabout's international visitors have been the most vocal in passing it on, and attempting to stop it!
Down the Great Ocean Road near Kennett River people have been seen climbing trees to get closer to wild koalas. In another area, people have been seen throwing sticks and stones to get a koala’s attention. We saw a young girl aim a slingshot at a sleeping wild koala in the You Yangs once – luckily we were there at the time and had strong words with her.
At Magnetic Island in Queensland we heard of an Australian family threaten to throw something at a koala because he wouldn’t look at them for their photograph. Poor koala was just trying to get some sleep amongst all the attention. I don’t think this is always intentional cruelty, it may just be ignorance.
We think the more of us who are vocal against inappropriate behaviour the better. Our koalas are so vulnerable.
Chris Pitt, of Care for the Wild International, says about our koala research: "Any information that can help protect wildlife is vital, but the fact that this has come from a wildlife tour operator is inspiring.
"A crucial part of the puzzle is for tour operators to understand their impact on the wildlife they are helping people see, and to ensure they are following the best possible standards.
"This is a wonderful example of wildlife tourism benefitting not only the lucky people who get to see the koalas, but also the koalas themselves."
While pro-Koala charities are campaigning for more protections for koalas in the wild including conservation of koala friendly habitat, charities also warn against ever considering a koala as a pet, which would be illegal in most countries, and also the need to avoid tourism opportunities that promote koala petting or cuddling.
Chris Pitt explains: "Koalas seem to have become a must-cuddle animal, with celebrities and tourists lining up to have a hug with them at zoos. You can initially see why, they're obviously very cute. But unfortunately, we'd have to play the killjoy and say, please, don't do it. The basic reason why is that these are wild animals, even if they live in a zoo.
"They are not domesticated cats or dogs, which have been bred to be comfortable around touchy feely humans. Several studies have shown that koalas can suffer from stress, and subsequently poor health, if they are hugged, touched or even approached too closely by humans.
"In the wild they have close but small social groups, so being passed from stranger to stranger at a zoo is going completely against their nature.
"We understand that some zoos will allow koala hugging so they can give some of the money to conservation projects, but people we know who work with koalas suggest that this is backward thinking."
Pitt says to help koalas, and other animals, then we need to help them in their natural habitats, and we'll only do that if we give up on the idea that they are our playthings and actually respect them as "the wonderful wild animals they really are."
"There are responsible tour operators like Echidna Walkabout" says Pitt, who "offer people the chance to witness koalas in the wild, where you can look, learn but not touch. If you love koalas, then we'd say keep your distance and see them that way."