What koalas can teach humanity
Updated: Sep 10
"The Nation that destroys its soil destroys itself".
-Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)
"What mankind must know is that human beings cannot live without Mother Earth, but the planet can live without humans".
--Evo Morales (1959-)
"How much can a Koala bear"?
-Austen Tayshus (1954-)
It’s soft, tubby and furry—like a child's toy—and it isn’t a bear at all, yet people think of it as one. The koala is almost everybody’s favorite marsupial.
On July 28, 2014, a koala that inevitably came to be called “Bear Grilles” was hit by a car in Queensland, Australia and managed to cling to the fender for over 50 miles (88 kilometers). Eventually, the vehicle pulled into a gas station to fill up and the tenacious koala was spotted.
The occupants of the car didn't quite know what to do but a helpful taxi driver stopped it wandering on to the road, wrapped it in a towel and sought professional help. Dr Geoff Collyer, at the nicely-named St Vet’s practice in Gympie, Queensland, declared it little worse for wear from its ordeal (with the exception of a torn nail). It did, however need to go to Australia Zoo’s hospital section, because it was suffering from chlamydia, an infectious disease which takes a month to cure, and is rampant among koala populations—perhaps affecting 90% of most colonies.
Piecing the story together afterwards, it seems that when it was hit the koala (later, affectionately named Timberwolf), simply did what it was good at, and grabbed for something, hanging on to the underside. Although the car was travelling continuously, our hero, despite having a primitive brain, managed to traverse to the front fender and latched on to the grill. Not bad for one of the laziest, most sedentary and dumbest of creatures—albeit, one of the cutest.
By our best estimates, koalas earn Australia something around AUD$2 billion (USD$1.78 billion, GBP£1.04 billion) in non-pandemic years from tourism, sales of fluffy toys and memorabilia. Put this down to charm, because apart from that, they are not the most exciting of creatures. They live in woodlands, sleep around 20 hours a day, and cling to trees, eating lots of eucalyptus leaves. This is a strange choice, as they have little nutritional value. With such a low energy yield from their diet, their metabolic rate is only half that of an equivalent-sized mammal such as a small dog, and consequently they only move around for about four minutes per day.
In the wild koalas are solitary, hanging out in a tree for a day or more before moving to another, and communicating with others by bellowing, which, depending on the purpose and gender of the bellower, serves to intimidate males or attract females. When they do encounter each other they can be aggressive, and wrestle or bite, and occasionally a smaller one in the same tree as a larger one will be displaced, either retreating to the forest floor or being pushed out of the tree. They usually survive the fall.
It’s not certain if Bear Grilles was a boy or girl, but males of the species have a bifurcated penis, and females have two lateral vaginas. Whether koalas have twice the fun is not known, but they are very well adapted to their environment, with a skeleton and musculature designed for tree-living. Their populations are dwindling mainly due to human causes rather than Australia’s notoriously forbidding outback environment.
This brings me, funnily enough, to what we can learn from the incredible persistence and wonderfully adapted features of koalas, which perfectly fit them to their geographical and arboreal niche. Homo, too, is a well-adapted species, in our case, to a hunter-gatherer existence, after previously being a tree-dweller for millennia. For two million years, from Homo habilis (toolmaking human) through Homo erectus (upright human) to Homo sapiens (wise human), evolution has acted on us just like the koala—to fit with a nomadic, foraging, subsistence mode of living on the forest floor or flat savannah.
Evolutionary psychologists make much of this, arguing that it is only in the last ten thousand years that we ceased being hunter-gatherers, embracing agriculture and animal husbandry, and settling down. This eventually led to modern existence in villages, towns, and, increasingly, large cities. So of only 10,000 years out of two million years of Homo—a mere half a percent of human existence—we have forged the built environment almost all of us currently inhabit.
Are we, then, adapted like the koala for the lives we now lead? The answer is a resounding no. Sedentary life styles, modern health care, education systems, financial sectors, food distribution systems, transport modes, industries, technology, and labor saving devices—all that we take for granted—is not typical but abnormal in the light of our species’ long prehistory.
This modern life confers advantages, of course, and that’s why we have pursued it. A good proportion of us live longer than anyone in humanity’s past, have bountiful resources, never go hungry, enjoy hobbies and leisure time, get a good education, and can specialize in a field that challenges and an occupation that satisfies our interests and matches our desires. If we live in one of the 96 democratic countries we have relative freedom and choices. Those of us who enjoy the benefits of such circumstances—which includes for a proportion of us the good fortune of ownership of a nice house with a late-model vehicle in the driveway, having a regular vacation, and enjoying a peaceful existence—should feel utterly privileged, and count our blessings every day.
Do we? Most likely not enough of us do that, or not enough of the time.
But that’s not my main point. Those who have them do not share or help transfer these opportunities sufficiently far and wide. Over 1 billion people (one in eight of us) live on USD$2.50 per day. Around 280 million of those are in extreme poverty, on less than USD$1.25 per day. The life expectancy in Sierra Leone is 48 years, the Central African Republic is 49 years and the Democratic Republic of Congo is 50 years, compared with rich countries where it is in the mid-80s and rising to 90 years for both males and females. The wealthy on Earth get a good life, and quantity of that lucky life.
Worse, there are armed incursions and outright wars such as those in the Middle East—the Yemeni crisis, for example, is associated with a quarter of a million deaths, directly and indirectly, and in Africa—the Tigray war between Ethiopia and Sudan comes to mind, with perhaps 52,000 causalities to date. Conflict, somewhere or other, is never-ending.
And the military-industrial complex keeps arming people at an alarming rate. Then we wonder how the airliner MH17 gets shot down in July 2014, killing 298 passengers and crew.
Many affluent countries treat refugees poorly or ignore their plight, yet cohorts of them are created by the rich world’s meddling in their affairs, such as the very recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. A few tree-top skirmishes amongst rival koalas are exceedingly innocuous by comparison.
And that’s not all, of course. We simply haven’t treated the scientific evidence about climate change sufficiently seriously, and this is tantamount to fiddling while Rome burns. How we can take such a risk beggars belief. Tune in to this presentation on the concerns of climate change if you have any lingering doubts: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0crC1snidw.
We can learn much from our hero, the tenacious koala. Bear Grilles reminds us about persistence and a broader success story, of a creature very good at exploiting an environmental niche to its advantage without harming other species. The koala’s story is a classic renewables story.
If we fail to be similarly sustainable in the way we exploit the environment, if we do not move sufficiently decisively on climate change, and if we do not learn a fundamental lesson—to share the benefits of the first world existence widely with our fellow humans, we’ll perpetuate a world of increasing unfairness. Resentment and conflict will inevitably snowball. World-wide, under climate change, inequality, and wars of our own making, the amount of pain and suffering, and as a consequence the numbers of refugees, will accelerate. If we don’t respond appropriately, it will be a downward spiral with no arresting the decline.
Sooner or later, then, all this mismanagement of the world will catch up with us. Our children will inherit an Earth where, ultimately, no one will have the lifestyle the privileged enjoy today. It’s a very stark choice.
Those koalas, living serenely and in tune with their surroundings, suddenly don’t seem so dumb any more. They are pretty dull-witted amongst other species, but they may be a lot smarter than humans.
FINCA (2021). World Poverty Facts. https://finca.org/campaign/world-poverty/#:~:text=Here%20is%20what%20world%20poverty,on%20agriculture%20for%20their%20livelihood.
Lee, Anthony K, Martin, Roger (1988). The Koala, a Natural History. Sydney: New South Wales University Press.
Walker, C (2014). Koala that clung to car grille is recovering. The Courier-Mail, July 29: https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/fraser-coast/koala-that-clung-to-car-grille-is-recovering/news-story/4ec4b9b16df141149bbb8f363a5d99d7.