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Wednesday 18 March 2015

Guest Post: Jesse Blackadder Warns us to Watch out for Drop Bears

Have you heard of a Drop Bear? It’s a big, powerful marsupial, closely related to the koala, but with one major difference – instead of chewing on gum leaves, it eats flesh. It lies in wait in high trees, pretending to be a sleeping koala, until unsuspecting prey comes within range – then it drops up to eight metres onto its victim and bites it on the neck. Once the Drop Bear has stunned its victim, it hauls it up a tree to devour it at leisure.

Don’t believe me? Well, the Australian Museum is in on the joke too, as it dedicates a whole page to “Drop Bears” (calling them Thylarctos plummetus), and Australian Geographic once ran a spoof story warning tourists that drop bears are less likely to attack people with Australian accents – complete with photos of creepy koalas with fangs.

I guess it’s a way of getting attention for koalas, which in reality are slow, sleepy creatures who are hard to spot in the wild and don’t do much to get the limelight. Far from dropping down onto their prey, koalas are more likely to drop from their trees because of illness, injury or disease.

Koalas living in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory were listed as ‘vulnerable’ in 2012 under Australia’s national environment law because their numbers are declining (though in some other areas — such as parts of Victoria — numbers are increasing). The main threat to koalas is humans – by clearing the places where koalas live, we have crowded them into small areas. The stress of this overcrowding means koalas are much more likely to get diseases (including Chlamydia, which is fatal to them). Plus cars and dogs kill about 4000 koalas every year, according to Save the Koala.

It’s a worry – koalas are unique creatures and the threat of them becoming extinct in some areas (including where I live) is real. But there are people doing some amazing work to care for sick and injured koalas and return them to the wild. The group nearest me – Friends of the Koala in Lismore – takes literally hundreds of calls each year and rescues more than 300 koalas of all ages.

The most dedicated volunteers are those who raise joeys (like kangaroos, koala babies are called joeys). It takes months of round the clock care, feeding them special formula with eyedroppers and bottles, and a mountain of washing as their surroundings have to be kept spotlessly clean. When those months are up, those carers must let their beloved charges go back into the wild.

I wrote Dexter The Courageous Koala after a wild koala (‘Elsie’) in my garden became sick. I’d become really fond of Elsie, and although Friends of the Koala tried to help, Elsie was too ill and they couldn’t save her.

In Dexter, 13-year-old Ashley wants nothing more than a puppy of her own. Instead she’s packed of to stay with her eccentric aunt near Byron Bay, thrown into a tropical cyclone and faced with fallen trees, floods, wild weather and ‘drop bears’ – the unfortunate sick or injured koalas who’ve ended up on the ground and need her help. It’s a great adventure into the little known world of koalas and what loving a wild animal really means.

One more thing— if you do find a sick or injured koala (or any other native creature) — don’t pick it up yourself. Handling them the wrong way can be dangerous for you and the animal. Call your local wildlife care organisation for advice and rescue support. You can download the Wildlife Rescue App to your smartphone, which will put you in direct contact with your nearest rescue organisation.

Jesse Blackadder is an Australian author whose work includes books for both children and adults. Her children's books include Stay: The Last Dog in Antarctica (KBR review) and Paruku: The Desert Brumby. Her latest title, Dexter: The Courageous Koala, is published by ABC Books and available from all good bookstores. Visit Jesse's website and Facebook page for more information about her books and writing.