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Saving the Koalas


Photo: Joel Sartore (previously on Neatorama)

The koala, the cuddly marsupial of Australia, is in crisis. After their population rebounded by the nation's efforts to save it from being hunted to extinction in the early 20th century, their numbers have recently declined sharply.

Mark Jenkins of National Geographic has the story of how Australians like Deidré de Villiers are now racing to (re)save the koalas. But first, she has to catch one and that's actually not as simple as it sounds:

One morning not long after, de Villiers sets out into the scrubby forest near Lake Samsonvale, northwest of Brisbane, to catch Tee Vee, a wild koala the researcher has been monitoring for more than a year. [...]

“I see her!” she says finally. A basketball-size gray lump is clinging to a branch of an ironbark tree 50 feet or so directly above.

Capturing a koala high in the canopy is complicated. First a giant slingshot blasts a ball of string over a tree limb close to the koala. This may require several tries. The string is attached to a climbing rope, which is pulled up over the limb and tied off taut to the ground. A 30-foot ladder is then set against the tree. Someone must scale the ladder and inch up the rope, carrying a “flagging pole” like a trapeze artist.

That someone is de Villiers, of course. Rigged out like a rock climber, she scrambles up the tree, agile as a koala herself. Dangling from a limb, she attempts to “flag” the koala, by flapping a flag of plastic or fabric attached to the end of the pole above its head. This annoys koalas, and Tee Vee starts shimmying backward down the trunk.

But Tee Vee, as de Villiers says, “is an obstreperous handful.” Halfway down the tree, the koala runs out on a limb and cleverly jumps into another tree, starting the whole process over again.

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