AFP-Getty Images file
A koala exchanges looks with a photographer on Kangaroo Island.
updated 3/1/2004 6:49:33 PM ET 2004-03-01T23:49:33

Cute, cuddly and fast breeding, thousands of koalas are eating themselves out of a home on an Australian island. But authorities are refusing to heed conservationists’ pleas to reduce the population, fearing a backlash from tourists and animal rights activists.

South Australia state Environment Minister John Hill said tourism would drop dramatically if koalas were killed on Kangaroo Island.

“We rely a lot on the international market for our tourists,” Hill told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio, adding the issue was particularly sensitive in Japan.

The island’s estimated 30,000 koalas have stripped many of the island’s eucalyptus trees of leaves, the animal’s sole food source, and they could face eventual starvation.

Australian Tourist Commission
Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of southern Australia.
Matt Turner, scientific officer for the state’s Nature Conservation Society, said state authorities need to thin the koala population to preserve the ecosystem of the island, 45 miles off the coast of South Australia state. Koalas were first introduced to the island 100 years ago.

“Some areas of the island, the trees are so heavily defoliated that trees are actually dying,” he told The Associated Press. “They are having a devastating effect on the island.”

Authorities have already tried sterilizing the animals and moving them off the island, but their numbers continue to rise.

Turner believes the population should be reduced to a small number of koalas that can be kept in an enclosed area for tourists to see.

“But there is no political will,” he added. “When you start talking about culling native wildlife, particularly cute and cuddly ones, there is a community backlash, and that is what basically has forced the government into ... a position where they cannot do any culling.”

Koalas are native to Australia, but their overall numbers have crashed due to loss of eucalyptus habitat as humans developed areas.

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