CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Even if you don't have kids, you've probably met a picky eater. You know, someone who eats very particular things. Nature has its picky eaters, too, and in Australia, it's part of the challenge to try to save an animal beloved worldwide for its teddy bear look. In this National Geographic Radio Expedition, NPR's Alex Chadwick takes us to an unusual forest in Australia.
CHADWICK: Koalas. That's what we're after.
CHADWICK: Experts disagree about how many koalas remain, perhaps only 100,000. But the U.S. government now calls them a threatened species. As Australians spread out onto once wild lands, as logging companies turn trees into timber, koalas are harder to find.
(A car engine starts up)
CHADWICK: But they are here. Somewhere.
HUME: We'll head to one particular area that we should be able to leave the car and pick up four or five different koalas from that spot. If we can get there. We don't know how much water is over the rise.
CHADWICK: We're koala-ing through a boggy section of woods an hour's drive north of Sydney with a researcher named Ian Hume.
HUME: I can tell you now that we will not be crossing the creek today, because that is probably ten or twelve feet deep.
CHADWICK: The rainy season should be gone by this time in February. Instead, rain clouds still flood the way.
(Thunder; driving, conversation: "We're heading toward this...")
CHADWICK: But wet or dry, this forest feels different from others. It's clear. It's open. A sense of light in the stands of 30- and 40-foot trees. This forest was made by Ian Hume.
HUME: I started off with two main goals. One was to demonstrate that, if we do it properly, we can restore degraded koala habitat. And the second goal was to demonstrate that if we have been able to restore the koala habitat, it's possible, again, if we do it properly, to release captive-bred koalas into the wild.
CHADWICK: Only ten years ago he planted most of the trees here, 60,000 of them. That's why this forest looks different. It's a research site devoted to koalas, and their utter refusal to eat anything but eucalyptus leaves, which are about one nutritional step away from rocks.
HUME: It's a pretty poor quality food. First of all, it hasn't got a lot of protein in it, and it has some, what I call, anti-nutrients in it, as well. And these act against the good well-being of the animal.
CHADWICK: A scientist looks at a forest for things in it. How they make up complex and beautiful schemes of need and fulfillment, everything with a place. Ian is a biologist specializing in a field that I had never heard of: digestive studies.
HUME: The amount of energy, net energy, that the koala gets out of a eucalyptus leaf is pretty awful.
CHADWICK: It would be easier to help these animals if they would only cooperate a little. Learn to eat carrots or broccoli. But koalas are so much like young children, the size of a four-year-old boy or girl, and adorably cute. And in appetite, too, exactly that stubborn with food. It's eucalyptus or nothing.
HUME: That leads to the question, well, how in the world do they survive on such a rotten food?
CHADWICK: They don't use much energy.
HUME: They don't use much energy. They spend a lot of the time sitting. Okay, let's go and see if we can find these koalas.
CHADWICK: Here we are tramping around the wood, looking for a not very big, tree-dwelling creature that's also tree-colored and practically immobile. It's pretty hopeless. Except that Ian carries a homing receiver and the koalas are wearing radio collars.
HUME: You turn up the squelch , which will quiet the signal, give us much more directionality.
HUME: So, let's go for a walk.
CHADWICK: He has to do this twice each month, find the eight or nine koalas that roam here, make sure they're healthy. He knows each one by name.
HUME: Patonga is a young female that's been in the area for two years. She bred for the first time last year. Her juvenile male Joe should also still be in this area.
CHADWICK: But even with radio collars, finding a koala is not that easy. For 20 minutes we cover and re-cover the same patch of forest floor.
(To Hume) So where is Patonga?
HUME: We're going to maximize the squelch because we're very close to her. This demonstrates the problem of, even though we know the koala is very near by, I can't see her.
CHADWICK: There she is, right up there. There, right there.
HUME: I see her, yes.
HUME: Well, we've walked under this tree a couple of times without seeing her there.
CHADWICK: She's 20 feet up, clinging to the trunk of a eucalyptus that's barely more than a sapling. We've already made enough noise to scare off a battalion of deer, but koalas are serenely indifferent to passers-by.
(To Hume) Now, Ian, just looking up, that animal is maybe 20 feet away, and through the binoculars I can see parts of her. And the -- well, her forearm and the claws that it ends in are just -- well, I sure wouldn't want to shake hands with that animal.
HUME: (Laughs) That's right. They're not vicious animals, but even when they're just holding onto you, because they're used to holding onto a tree trunk, those claws can do a lot of damage.
CHADWICK: Digestive study is not for the delicate sensibilities. Ian pays particular attention to the koala's bottom, the area of what's called the cloaca, the waste disposer for everything the koala eats or drinks. In a notebook he marks Patonga as clean and healthy.
HUME: She's now doing some grooming. Remember, we had five inches of rain last night, and her fur coat, although it looks in good condition --
CHADWICK: Kind of matted.
HUME: It's a little bit matted because of that rain. So she's doing some grooming, now, to unmat some of that fur.
CHADWICK: If anything, koalas are even fussier than I've said. Not just any eucalyptus is good enough, only the right ones. And that's what makes Ian Hume's experimental forest so remarkable.
HUME: The koalas will use these small planted trees in preference for some of the much larger, naturally occurring trees in the area. Which says to me that we've chosen the right species of trees to plant here. The right species and the right mix of species.
CHADWICK: Tracking through forest and flood for the rest of the day, we find eight more koalas. Not one of them appears the least interested in that tall man with a notebook, a digestive biologist who's busy discovering how to restore what others elsewhere are busily cutting down.
(To Hume) This land, when you got this land, it looked a lot different than it does now?
HUME: Oh, yeah. Where we're standing here, apart from the tea tree thicket in front of us, this was a clear field without anything growing on it but grass. So that was ten years ago.
CHADWICK: And look at it now; it's all kind of young forest all around us.
HUME: Yeah. It's pretty satisfying, actually, to see the transformation from grassland into what I think now is prime koala habitat, yeah.
CHADWICK: Dr. Ian Hume is a researcher at the University of Sydney. In Australia, with recording engineer Manoli Wetherell, for Radio Expeditions, this is Alex Chadwick, NPR News.
CURWOOD: Radio Expeditions is a co-production of NPR News and the National Geographic Society.
(Music up and under: David Hudson, "Talkative Didgeridoo")
ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, supporting reporting on western issues; the Oak Foundation for coverage of marine issues; and the W. Alton Jones Foundation, promoting new economic approaches to advance environmental protection and human prosperity: www.wajones.org.
(Music up and under)
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. And this is NPR, National Public Radio. When we return: A conservative response to global warming and the Kyoto Accord. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.
(Music up and under: Nightmares on Wax, "Finer.")
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.
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