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The Australian Koala

Although sometimes called the Australian native bear, the koala is in fact a marsupial. Its nearest relative is the wombat, as both animals have a backward opening pouch in which the young develop from birth.

The small, hairless cub is about 20 mm long and 5 gin weight when born. It has well-developed forelimbs and small, budlike hind limbs. Its eyes are closed but, unassisted by its mother, it crawls from the birth canal into the pouch where it attaches itself to a teat. It remains in the pouch for about six months, when the young cub begins riding on its mother's back. At weaning time the mother's body manufactures a green slime-like substance on which the cub feeds until it is able to digest the eucalyptus leaves which are the koala's only food.

Koalas mainly feed at night and rest during the day. They consume about one kilogram of leaves a day but are very selective in the species they choose. Koalas never search for water and only drink occasionally.

Koalas are found only in the coastal areas of Australia from Cooktown, Queensland, to South Australia. They are rarely seen outside national parks or wildlife sanctuaries and it is forbidden in Australia to keep them as pets or to kill them. Koalas are clumsy on the ground but are agile climbers, their hands and feet being adapted for gripping branches. The first finger and thumb of the hand is directly opposed to the rest of the fingers while, on the hind foot, the big toe is able to oppose the other toes. They have no natural predators but are often attacked by domestic dogs.

Fire, too, is a serious hazard, for even if the koala survives the flames it may die of starvation.

Koalas were once hunted by Aborigines for food and later by white men for their fur.

In 1924 more than 2,000,000 skins were exported and at the turn of the century they almost became extinct because of disease. However, in recent years conservation programmes have resulted in an increase in the koala population.

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