Over the years we have noticed that some human behaviour causes koalas to respond negatively. So we have formulated some Wild Koala watching guidelines:
- Never touch the tree a koala is sitting in!!!
- Maintain a distance of 10 metres (horizontal) from any wild koala – if you suddenly find a koala right above you, move away immediately.
- Do not surround a koala’s tree. Ideally, all humans should remain together in a group to avoid causing the koala stress.
- Avoid excessive movement or noise around wild koalas. They are sensitive to disturbance.
- Do not try to get the animal’s attention by making noises. This may work once, but over time 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.
1. Never touch the tree a koala is sitting in: this was our first rule. 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 I had this point reinforced. I was concerned about the health of one of our You Yangs koalas – Mary, an older female. She was sitting quite low in a tree fork. I put a free-standing ladder beside the tree and climbed to her height to visually examine her. From arm’s length away I looked her over without touching her or the tree. She looked at me calmly but returned quickly to resting (she had known me for years). Later, for some stability, I leaned against the tree, and immediately her reaction changed. She sat up, eyes wide, barked once and climbed up the branch quickly. For a moment I thought she was going to strike me. When I touched the tree I was no closer to her than I had been earlier.
2. 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.
Interestly, a recent scientific study (1) has found that captive koalas subjected to people at close proximity (5 metres) do experience higher levels of stress than when the people are further away. Wild koalas are likely to be even more sensitive, so our self-imposed 10 metre limit is justified.
3. Do not surround a koala’s tree. 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.
4. Avoid excessive movement or noise around wild koalas. 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.
The same study (1) mentioned earlier also tested captive koalas’ reaction to noise levels of humans, and found that increasing noise led to increased vigilance behaviour (stress) in the koalas.
5. Do not try to get the animal’s attention by making noises. 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 any more than necessary. It is also just simply good animal welfare practice, which is important to us as a Social Enterprise with a mission to conserve wild animals.
Sadly, we have recently heard of some disgusting human behaviour towards wild koalas in some areas. Our 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 I heard 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. This may not be intentional cruelty, it may just be ignorance, but it has the same negative effect on the koalas.
The more of us who are vocal against such behaviour the better. Our koalas are so vulnerable.
1. Number of nearby visitors and noise level affect vigilance in captive koalas. Larsen, Megan J. et al. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , Volume 154 , 76 – 82
“Study 1 (human proximity study) demonstrated that an increase in the number of nearby (within 5 metres) visitors, but not total daily visitor number, resulted in increased time spent vigilant in the koalas. Study 2 (visitor noise level study) showed that an increase in visitor noise treatment resulted in increased time spent vigilant in the koalas.”
(notes in italics added by me for clarity)