Koala: A Life in Trees by Danielle Clode

Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

As many readers would agree, there are hundreds of children’s stories about koalas, but Danielle Clode reminds us that there are barely a handful of adult books about them. Despite their iconic status and celebrity, koalas remain a mystery. Clode delves into their world to discover the story behind this animal which today represents Australia to the world.

This book is their story – their history, evolution, biology, ecology, their interactions with humans and other predators, where they have come from and what their future holds. At the end of the book, the author reveals that her koala journey took a different path from the one expected. Because of the pandemic her travel was restricted, so much of her information has come from research of her local area of South Australia, which opened up many unexpected local opportunities.

The book is divided into the usual academic units. It also has a map of Koala distribution across southern and eastern regions. Over the last two hundred years, the distribution and abundance of koalas has retracted east. More recently, koalas have re-established wild populations in their former range in South Australia. A family tree of Marsupialia, past and present, is also provided.

The detailed research that has gone into collecting the information for this book is not only evident in the bibliography, references and notes showing the sources for her information in each of the sections of the book and suggestions for further reading, but also in the recounting of field trips she undertook. Her detailed description of her caving experience convinced me that this activity is not one for my bucket list.

Although an academic piece of work, the conversational style of her own experiences growing up and during her adult life as a biologist and natural history author based at Flinders University, make it a book suitable for all readers. In some parts of the book, the information is passed on in story form.

The text is arranged into six sections each including four to five chapters except for the first section Into the Woods which has only one four-page chapter. Each section begins with a story about a particular koala. These are presented on grey pages which help identify where each section begins. The font of these stories is smaller than in the rest of the book. The only pictures are on the covers, but each chapter has a small relevant sketch of a koala above the title and line drawings of a sprig of two leaves are used to separate paragraphs with a new focus.

In the sections titled From Fossils and Bones, Life in the Forest, A Life in Reflection, Everything Changes, and Future Tense information regarding fossilised koala teeth, anatomy and feeding habits of koalas can be found. Also work done by the Cleland Wildlife Park South Australia, a major breeding and conservation centre for koalas and home to one of the largest breeding colonies of disease-free koalas in Australia is revealed. The impact of people both indigenous and European on koala populations is highlighted as are reasons why numbers have fluctuated and what has been the government’s response.

It was interesting to read how the profile of the koala has changed over the years. Before the 1900s there was little interest shown in this species. They began to receive a higher profile with Norman Lindsay’s children’s book The Magic Pudding, first published in 1918. And around 1914 many products from flour to brass beds were branded as Koala. By the 1920s toy koalas were being manufactured as a result of the teddy bear phenomenon. This was made possible by the availability of their furry pelts for coats, muffs, purses and handbags, when hundreds and thousands of koalas were slaughtered. As a result, their population plummeted. Although protected status was first muted in 1921 in Queensland, it wasn’t until the 1930s that the Australian Government banned the export of koalas and koala products.

In 1933, the adventures of the feisty little koala Blinky Bill promoted a powerful conservation message. By 1939, the extinction of koalas on Australian mainland was considered inevitable and imminent. From just a handful of animals rescued from the brink of extinction, the koala population across South Australia has rebounded to over half a million animals, while in the eastern states the numbers have declined. In South Australia today, contraception programs are being employed because of over browsing of trees. The Mt Lofty Range has lost 90% of its original vegetation and can no longer support the numbers.

Did you know that it is hard to treat koalas for diseases because their bodies consider antibiotics and anaesthetics to be toxins or that koalas eat only 70 of the 800 or 900 species of eucalypts?

Over the course of their evolutionary history, koalas have responded to climate change, disease, changing forests, increased aridity, predation and hunting. And they have survived. But the author reminds the reader that no matter how resilient they are, fires in recent years have shown just how easy it is to lose a huge number in just a few months.

In 2012, the status of koalas was ‘vulnerable’ and in 2022, it was upgraded to ‘endangered species’. The reader is warned that classifying a species as this without addressing the underlying causes does little more than generate a few headlines. Just as our own future relies on our farms, the survival of koalas depends on their forests.

The book finishes on a positive note as Danielle Clode tells the reader how she and her neighbours are planting trees, like many other farmers throughout Australia, linking corridors of prime riparian habitat for wildlife.

Although the information was often confronting, I found this book to be a very interesting and easy to read work, and would highly recommend it to other readers.

Koala: A Life in Trees


By Danielle Clode

Black Inc

ISBN: 978 176064 288 4

$34.99; 336pp


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