GUNNEDAH, Australia—Scrambling up a rock-strewn hill, I crane my neck and scan a row of trees for koalas. Truth be told, I’ve never been all that good at spotting koalas in the wild. The cartoon-cute marsupial may be one of the world’s most recognizable animals, but try finding one silently snoozing 40 feet off the ground in a leafy eucalyptus tree among hundreds scattered across this former farm in the Liverpool Plains, a fertile agriculture district 250 miles northwest of Sydney. Koalas, which sleep up to 22 hours a day, don’t snore or do much of anything else that would attract attention. But on this sunny antipodean spring day in late September, even the koala experts from the University of Sydney I’m accompanying aren’t having much luck. After hours of searching, we’ve found only one in an area once crawling with koalas. That is deeply disconcerting to the scientists, who are studying the impact of climate change on an animal listed as one of the species most at risk from global warming. A 2009 heat wave here wiped out an estimated 25 percent of what had been one of the healthiest populations of koalas in Australia.
They aren’t bouncing back.
“These heat waves are happening more and more with climate change,” Mathew Crowther, the wildlife ecologist who leads the research team, says as we take a break for lunch. “We have weeks of high temperatures we never had before, and koalas can’t get enough food and water and shelter. Koalas can cope with the odd hot day, but after that they’re found dead or dying at the base of trees.”
FULL COVERAGE: Climate Change(d): The Future Is Now
The 2009 heat wave followed a decade-long drought and helped trigger the most deadly wildfires in Australia’s recorded history, killing 173 people in the southern state of Victoria as temperatures soared to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Droughts and bushfires, as they’re called here, have been part of the Australian landscape for 65 million years. But in recent decades, the intensity and frequency of deadly conflagrations have grown with rising temperatures. The number of days of record heat a year, for instance, has doubled since 1960, according to government scientists, while annual rainfall has declined by as much as 20 percent in southern Australia. September ended as the third driest September ever, while October ranked as the hottest October, with bushfires breaking out across the country during an ever-lengthening fire season. Wildfires have killed six people in the past week alone.
With only a few hours of search time left in the day, we split up to maximize our chances of a koala encounter. As I reach the end of a ridgeline, there’s no mistaking what I see dozing in a sprawling eucalyptus tree, its butt and belly wedged in the fork between two thick branches, its paws hugging the rough bark of the trunk like a pillow. After a few minutes, the koala rouses from its slumber and peers down at me, staring. I stare back. Most people will never look a wild polar bear in the eye, exchanging glances with a magnificent animal whose extinction is unfolding in real time. The koala is Australia’s polar bear, its tree an ice floe. The eucalyptus I’m standing under is the marsupial’s sole source of shelter, the elongated leaves its only food and water. When heat waves drain moisture from eucalyptus leaves, thirsty koalas have nowhere to run—and a species evolved to conserve energy can’t run for long. A growing pile of scientific studies indicates that rising carbon dioxide levels will make the few species of eucalyptus leaves preferred by fussy koalas increasingly toxic and less nutritious. As temperatures continue to climb, koala populations in hotter, drier regions of Australia are crashing.
The koala ambles up a branch toward the top of the tree. Sitting on its haunches, the warm breeze ruffling its gray-brown fur, the animal holds on to a branch with one arm as pink-and-gray birds called galahs circle overhead. The idyll is interrupted by the blast of a horn. The koala slowly turns its head and gazes at an approaching train in the valley below, each of its dozens of cars piled high with jet-black coal. Traveling from a mine in the north, the train takes several minutes to pass on its way to a coastal port where its cargo will be loaded on ships bound for China and India.
Even as world leaders gather in Paris this week to negotiate a treaty to slash greenhouse gas emissions and the burning of fossil fuels accelerates the climate change battering Australia, the country’s coal-mining binge continues unabated. The world’s second-largest exporter of coal, Australia ranks as one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases per capita, thanks to its dependence on the black stuff to generate more than 70 percent of its electricity. One recently approved coal mine would generate more carbon dioxide than 52 nations. That mine, along with six others in the works, would collectively become the world’s seventh-largest emitter of C02.
Coal is not just an existential threat to an iconic animal whose vulnerability to climate change foreshadows the fate of other species, scientists say. Fifteen miles away, the government has approved the construction of a 13.5-square-mile Chinese-owned coal mine to be built on the habitat of several hundred koalas and some of Australia’s richest farmland. The Shenhua mine has triggered a rebellion among residents, who fear the 1,000-foot-deep open pits will contaminate an aquifer that transformed the Liverpool Plains into Australia’s food bowl. Now, the farmers and ranchers of this bedrock conservative region are making common cause with environmentalists to stop the mine by challenging its impact on the koala. If they can save the koala, they may just save themselves.
Video: Farmers Take on Big Coal to Save Koalas—and Themselves
Plant a Tree, and They Will Come
When Crowther first came to the Liverpool Plains in 2008, it was not to study why the koalas were dying but rather why they were so healthy. Researchers have found that at least 50 percent of koalas in Australia suffer from chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease that leaves the animals blind and infertile. The Liverpool Plains koalas, on the other hand, appeared to be virtually chlamydia-free. Koala populations elsewhere in Australia were plummeting as suburban development fragmented their woodland habitat, leaving them vulnerable to predation by their new neighbors—pet dogs and automobiles. The country koala population, though, numbered in the thousands and was growing.
Then there was another mystery: Why were koalas even here, and where did they come from?
“There really weren’t many koalas recorded here before the 1980s, as there had been too much land clearing for agriculture over the past century,” says Crowther. So much that the soil began to turn saline. In an effort to keep the water table down and return nutrients to the soil, the state government began planting thousands of trees across the Liverpool Plains. Nutrients weren’t the only thing that returned.
“I reckon we have 100 koalas on our property,” says Doug Frend, 33, who raises cattle, barley, and sorghum on Dimberoy, his family’s 5,200-acre farm nestled between rolling hills on the Liverpool Plains south of the country town of Gunnedah. “My dad said they never really noticed them before the 1970s or ’80s.” You don’t have to wander too far to find them today. It’s a bright, sunny morning, and we’re standing near a row of eucalyptus trees towering over sheds and tractors. A gray-and-white koala perches on a branch high off the ground, its eyes closed tight. Within a few hundred feet of Frend’s tin-roofed farmhouse we find another five koalas, including a mother and baby.
Andrew Pursehouse and Cindy Pursehouse have been farming on the Liverpool Plains for three decades. “We’ve planted hundreds of trees over the years,” says Cindy Pursehouse as she and her husband give me a tour of Breeza Station, their 11,000-acre farm. Andrew Pursehouse gestures to a row of eucalyptus trees that stretches up a hill. “This is a tree line we planted about 20 years ago,” he says. “Usually when we plant tree lines, we make sure they’re a variety that that the koala likes to eat.”
The trees are apparently tasty. Behind us, a rather large koala watches languidly from a branch, only a few feet from a barbed wire fence that marks the boundary between Breeza Station and the Shenhua mine property. A hundred feet away, another koala shimmies down a tree, bounces like a bunny across the grass, and hops onto another eucalyptus.
“Werris Creek is a town on the other side of the gap in those hills,” Andrew Pursehouse says, pointing to the southeast. “Friends of ours have been there for three generations, and the second generation only saw koalas about 20 years ago. They had never been there before, and now they are. I don’t know if it’s climate change or what.”
The origin of the Liverpool Plains koala is unknown, but biologists say there is a possibility that some of the koalas are climate refugees from the Pilliga Forest, a 1.2-million-acre woodland to the west. The forest was home to as many as 10,000 koalas in the early 1990s, according to government surveys. By 2011, detections of koalas in the Pilliga had plummeted 77 percent.
“Today there’s only about a couple of dozen left out of a population in excess of 5,000,” says David Paull, a wildlife ecologist who studied the Pilliga koalas when he worked for the state government. “They more or less disappeared over a 10-year period of above-average droughts.”
In a paper reporting the results of the 2011 survey, Paull linked the disappearance of the koalas from the Pilliga to climate change and to a series of heat waves. Meteorological data cited in the study shows that between 1984 and 1994, there were only three years when temperatures in the Pilliga exceeded 104 degrees Fahrenheit, for a total of 14 days of excessive heat during the entire decade. But between 2001 and 2011, the Pilliga experienced temperatures greater than 104 degrees every year, with 10 days of searing heat in 2002, twelve days in 2006, and seven days in 2009.
“Rising temperatures and heat stress during certain times seems to be what killed them,” says Crowther. “It’s hard to tell if the koalas were moving into the Liverpool Plains from there or if they hadn’t been discovered here before.”
If some koalas did somehow manage to survive the journey from the Pilliga, the Liverpool Plains may prove to be a short-lived haven.
Nowhere to Run
When researchers came back to the Liverpool Plains after two consecutive heat waves struck the region in late 2009, they found dead and dying koalas clinging to the base of trees, forced to the ground by dehydration and the merciless sun. At Dimberoy farm, Doug Frend’s father found a fifth of the koalas on the property dead on the ground after several 100-degree days. The researchers offered water to one hugging a tree by spraying it with some. “After the koala felt the water on its nose, it then sprinted to John Lemon, who was holding the spray-gun,” Crowther and his colleagues wrote in a study published in 2012. “It clasped his hand to stop John Lemon withdrawing the bottle to refill it. The koala climbed through the fence to pursue John Lemon in its quest for the water bottle. What is so remarkable is that this koala would, in any other circumstance, have quickly climbed the tree on our approach. It was manifestly desperate for water.”
The researchers observed that the animals’ fertility rates had dropped precipitously in the wake of the heat wave. A month before the first heat wave, 89 percent of female koalas caught in the Gunnedah area were found with joeys. A year later, only 40 percent of captured koalas were carrying young. Scientists also think the stress of the heat wave and drought may have triggered a chlamydia outbreak. According to the study, 43 percent of koalas captured tested positive for the disease after the heat waves, compared with just 8 percent in 2008.
In late September, I join the researchers when they return to the Liverpool Plains for the first time in four years for a weeklong excursion to capture koalas, test them for chlamydia, and outfit the animals with GPS collars to track their movements. After I spot the koala, I call out to the team, and 20 minutes later they return carrying long poles festooned with strips of pink-and-gray plastic. The chief koala wrangler, a ponytailed 33-year-old named George Madani, puts on a harness and helmet and starts rappelling up the tree. Madani, a self-described “field monkey” (albeit one with a master’s degree in wildlife management), holds a pole with a length of rope running up the side. As he gets closer to the koala, the animal is startled and moves farther out on a high limb, its weight bending the branch. “You bugger,” Madani curses.
He manages to lasso the koala with the rope while three people on the ground wave the plastic-topped poles over the animal as it struggles to free itself. Koalas don’t like anything above their heads, and it begins to back down the tree, alternating between guttural grunts and a high-pitched scream. When it reaches the trunk, veterinarian Mark Krockenberger grabs the koala and presses it to the ground, staying clear of its razor-sharp claws, and then pops it into a white canvas Australia Post mailbag.
Down the hill, Krockenberger weighs the koala while it’s still in the bag and then sedates the nearly 23-pound animal and places it on the tailgate of a Ford Ranger 4x4 pickup truck. The koala is male, about eight to 10 years old, judging from the wear on its teeth. And it’s been captured before: A scanner picks up a signal from a microchip that was implanted under the koala’s skin on Oct. 26, 2010. It’s put on some weight since then—a good sign—but its eyes are red. That’s not so good. “Looks like conjunctivitis, which is a sign of chlamydia,” says Krockenberger as an assistant shaves a patch of fur on one of the koala’s arms to draw blood for laboratory testing that will confirm the presence of the disease. “One of the big problems with chlamydia is that koalas are no longer successfully breeding, yet they’re taking up habitat.”
Still, Krockenberger, an assistant professor at the University of Sydney, deems the koala healthy enough to be outfitted with a GPS collar. Valentina Mella, a postdoctoral research associate at the university, straps the 3.5-ounce collar around the koala’s neck and tunes in its UHF frequency, which will be used to find the animal when the researchers return in six months to retrieve the device and download its data.
Crowther says the scientists hope to learn where and how far the animals travel each night from the trees they choose for shelter against the sun to those that offer the most nutritious koala chow. Those insights will allow wildlife officials to better plan where to create refuges for the climate-stressed animals and plant the tree species most likely to allow them to survive.
Earlier in the day the team caught a female, but Krockenberger ruled against collaring that one, which was showing definite signs of chlamydia. “She’s probably eight to 10 years old, which is oldish,” he says. “She’s also a bit dehydrated, so I’ve given her a bit of fluids. We will release her, but putting a collar on her would put more stress on her.”
Biologists believe most koalas carry chlamydia, but the disease remains dormant until it’s triggered by stress—from habitat destruction, harassment by dogs, or drought and heat waves.
Laboratory results will show 67 percent of the 24 adult koalas that are caught by week’s end testing positive for chlamydia, an eight-fold increase from 2008.
“They’re living on the edge, particularly out here,” Krockenberger says. “They might breed every two years, maybe annually, but I doubt it.”
At Breeza Station, the Pursehouses find koalas suffering from 100-degree temperatures during most summers. “Even last year I had one in my yard sitting on the ground by the tree,” says Cindy Pursehouse. “You just put some water before them, and they actually drink.”
A 2011 study by University of Queensland scientists used computer modeling to forecast that koalas will be forced to move south and east as temperatures rise. The Pursehouses say they’ve seen evidence that such a migration is under way. “We have been here 31 years, and the intriguing issue is that we do see koalas leaving the hill and moving south and east from where we are,” says Andrew Pursehouse. “That means crossing a treeless plain for many kilometers until they find the next hill and tree.”
“We regularly pick them up on the black soil, and there’s not a tree in sight,” he adds, pointing to an expanse of agricultural fields below his house. “We’ve had to rescue so many here over the years, particularly when it gets wet and they get bogged in the fields.”
Drought, heat waves, and wild swings in the weather also have taken a toll on the farmers. Doug Frend says his family sold off its breeding cows as the cost of feeding them during droughts became ruinous. “We know we’re going to get dry times, and droughts can go on for years,” he says. “We now buy in other people’s calves that they’ve bred.”
Photographer Elise Hassey captures efforts made by farmers and scientists to save the koala on the Liverpool Plains.
Liverpool Plains rancher Nicky Chirlian notes that climate change has started to hit area cattle operations. “There’s been a huge amount of destocking,” she says. “We breed cattle, but we get skinny ones and fatten them. It’s amazing when you drive out west—where have the cattle gone? It’s been dry for so long.”
The drought in 2002–2003, for instance, hurt agricultural productivity, lowering Australia’s gross domestic product by 1 percent, according to a report released in October by the Climate Council, a nonprofit research institute. Between 1996 and 2010, the years of the so-called Millennium Drought in Australia, declines in agricultural productivity resulted in a 0.5 percent fall in GDP. Food prices, meanwhile, rose at twice the rate of the consumer price index.
Andrew Pursehouse, 57, recognizes the threat climate change poses to farmers, but he is focused on a more immediate danger—the huge coal mine to be built by China’s Shenhua Group about a mile from Breeza Station. The Liverpool Plains may boast Australia’s most productive farmland, thanks to an immense aquifer, but underneath that rich soil is an estimated 1.5 billion metric tons of coal. “My fear is that this mine is going to be put here and cut the natural migration of koalas clean off,” he says.
While we're talking, Crowther and his team are on the mine site looking for koalas. They will capture 12 adults and one joey.
“This hill where the mine is going to be is a source of water for the aquifer, as are all the hills in the district," says Andrew Pursehouse. "We’re terribly concerned there is going to be impacts to the underground water supply.”
He scoops up a handful of the rich black dirt that grows just about anything, from cotton and wheat to sunflowers and chickpeas, at Breeza Station. “Why would you want to damage the agricultural ability of this soil for a stinking dirty coal mine?” he asks.
To a non-Australian, the idea of trading food for coal may seem, well, insane. After all, would you put a coal mine in the Napa Valley, the cradle of the $25 billion California wine industry? Australia has. In the Hunter Valley—the Napa Valley of New South Wales—there are 31 coal mines and five coal-fired power plants amid the vineyards.
Australia is a bit of an economic oddity—a wealthy, advanced developed nation with a developing world–like dependence on digging stuff out of the ground. Thanks to China’s voracious appetite, exports of coal, iron ore, wheat, and other commodities have fueled Australia’s 20-year economic boom. The country’s richest person, Gina Rinehart (net worth $11.7 billion, according to Forbes), is not a tech mogul but a miner.
In short, no politician, right or left, has met a coal mine she or he didn’t like. It was a state Labor government that in 2008 granted China’s Shenhua Group a license to explore 75 square miles of the Liverpool Plains for coal in exchange for the equivalent of $215 million. Final approval for the mine came from the conservative government of Tony Abbott, the recently deposed prime minister and climate change skeptic who proclaimed at the opening of a coal mine last year that “coal is good for humanity, coal is good for prosperity, coal is an essential part of our economic future.”
The conservative government’s pell-mell push to approve coal mines threatens to fracture a decades-old alliance between rural interests and urban conservatives. “Certainly, like all farmers here on the plain, we’re not against mining,” says Andrew Pursehouse. “But this one is just smack in the wrong spot.”
As if on cue, a coal train rumbles by in the distance, skirting fields planted with wheat and other crops. The Shenhua mine would operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and would require the construction of roads and a rail line to transport the coal.
We’re sitting on the Pursehouses’ patio overlooking a broad plain, drinking coffee and noshing on Nicky Chirlian’s homemade coffee cake. David Paull, the wildlife ecologist, has joined us. He resigned his position with the state government last year to protest what he characterizes as a rush to approve coal and natural gas projects regardless of the consequences for wildlife. He now advises Shenhua opponents in a legal challenge to the mine’s approval on the grounds that the government did not consider the impact on koalas of leveling 2,000 acres of their woodland habitat. (Shenhua somewhat incredulously has said it would encourage the animals to leave of their own volition or, barring that, relocate them.)
As Andrew Pursehouse calmly delves into the complex hydrology of the Liverpool Plains and the potential for the mine to contaminate the aquifer, there’s an undercurrent of rage at the table: fury at Shenhua and the government, dismay at neighbors who sold their farmland to the Chinese for millions of dollars, giving the miners access to water rights.
“If this mine goes ahead, I think we’ll see a revolution of people here,” he says. It’s not an idle threat. In 2008, Liverpool Plains farmers staged a 635-day blockade to prevent Australian mining giant BHP Billiton from exploring for coal on growers’ land. The company backed off.
“People are so angry they will do anything to stop this mine,” he adds, his voice growing steely. “Whatever it takes.”
The End of Coal
“Farmers are the biggest greenies in the country at the moment,” says Tim Flannery, one of Australia’s most prominent scientists and author of The Weather Makers, a global best seller that, along with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, brought climate change to worldwide attention a decade ago. “They wouldn’t call themselves that, but that’s effectively what they are. They’re at the radical end of things.”
The Weather Makers laid out the coming climate catastrophe in chilling and persuasive scientific detail and warned of the consequences of inaction, including the melting of glaciers, the collapse of coral reefs, and prolonged droughts. “The delay of even a decade is far too much,” Flannery wrote in the concluding chapter, titled “Time’s Up.”
When I meet Flannery on the patio of his Melbourne home, it’s been nearly a decade of dithering by world leaders on climate change since the book’s publication. But I find him cautiously optimistic that a turning point has been reached as renewable energy technologies ramp up. Thus the title of his latest book, Atmosphere of Hope, in which he calls for the development of “third way” technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere and oceans to create products, such as the process developed by a California company to make plastic furniture from methane gas emissions.
“I think the days of exporting coal are finished for Australia,” says the soft-spoken Flannery as his two-year-old son plays with a toy train. “The cost of the highest-quality metallurgical coal you can buy in China is now less than that of potable water. You can’t afford to dig it out of the ground and ship it.”
“Coal is losing its social license to operate in Australia,” he adds. “They’re not generating the jobs anymore, but the pollution is still there, and people in regional Australia are keenly aware of that. Australia totally needs to leave its coal in the ground.”
Two of Australia’s biggest banks have ruled out financing a recently approved $16 billion mine, while the city council of Newcastle in New South Wales, home to the world’s biggest coal port, has voted to pull its investments from four Australian banks if they continue to finance fossil fuel projects.
Flannery led the Climate Commission, which the Australian government established to provide scientific advice on climate policy. When Abbott’s Liberal Party (which is conservative) came to power in 2013, it abolished the commission, along with a carbon tax that had been imposed by the outgoing Labor government. Flannery reconstituted the commission as the nonprofit Climate Council.
Former Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull, a proponent of action on climate change, ousted Abbott in a party-room coup in September. He became the country’s fifth prime minister in five years, a turnover spawned in large part by disputes over climate policy.
For Flannery, action is being increasingly driven from the ground up as average Australians, like the Liverpool Plains farmers, experience the consequences of climate change in their backyards. Flannery, a mammalogist, points to his own backyard. “It was hot last summer, and we had a family of black rats living up in that tree there, and I watched them chewing through bamboo to get some water, and they eventually died,” he says.
Are Australia’s koalas fated to end up like rats in a bamboo cage? They have, after all, survived endless millennia of drought and bushfires. “Australia has always had droughts, but before we came around and messed up the landscape, koalas could find a refuge and hunker down until conditions improved,” says Christine Adams-Hosking, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland, who studies the impact of climate change on koala habitat.
Adams-Hosking is lead author of the 2011 study that found that koala populations would contract toward the south and the east as temperatures continue to rise. “The rapidity of this climate change is one of the big issues for koalas—they’re just not a very mobile animal,” she says, noting females tend to stay within a small home range, while males typically don’t move more than 12 miles from where they’re born. “I don’t think most of them will be able to migrate. It’s happening now in real time that their populations are crashing.”
But not all of them. On Christmas Day in 2001, when I was living in Australia, we woke in our Sydney home by the beach to apocalyptic yellow clouds hovering over the ocean. Some 1.7 million acres of bushland surrounding the city were burning. At a family gathering later that day, ash fell into our gin and tonics as thick black smoke drifted across the horizon. On Sydney’s western edge, 60-foot walls of flames were incinerating forests, including a woodland home to 200 koalas near the suburb of Campbelltown that biologist Robert Close had been studying for a decade. When I joined him months later as he ventured into a moonscape of charred trees to monitor the survivors, he was relieved to find Franceska, a 10-year-old female koala that he had been tracking for seven years, sitting in one of the few intact eucalyptus trees. Better yet, a three-month-old joey was sticking its head out of Franceska's pouch.
I contact Close to find out how the koalas are faring 14 years later, given a panoply of threats, including encroaching housing developments. He tells me the animals have not suffered long-term consequences from the fires. “Nor did we notice any other possible effects of climate change, except that koala numbers around Campbelltown are increasing,” he says. The housing developer has gone bankrupt, and the woodland is now part of a national park.
Australians may love their koalas and love putting them in the arms of visiting royalty, presidents, and prime ministers, but the federal government does not protect them as a threatened species, and state safeguards remain weak.
That underscores the importance of the work Crowther and his colleagues are doing to track the animals and determine which tree species are crucial for their survival. On the second day of the excursion, the team catches six koalas, including a joey, at Dimberoy farm. With the day drawing to a close, Doug Frend thinks more are to be found on the further reaches of his farm. I jump in a truck with him and his dachshund, and we head out past an electric cattle fence. “There,” he says, pointing to the silhouette of a koala sitting in the crook of a eucalyptus, its baby nestled against its chest.
In short order, three more koalas—one a joey—are spotted nearby. As the setting sun lights the golden hills afire, Madani races up trees to capture the animals before darkness falls. He wrestles a big and feisty koala into an Australia Post bag, and I carry the 22-pounds of squirming marsupial a few hundred yards to where Krockenberger is examining the captured koalas by flashlight while assistants hold an overflow of sedated animals on their laps.
“Imagine if the world had no more koalas,” Crowther says. “Imagine if Australia lost its koalas on our watch. It’s important to our culture; it’s important to our ecosystem. All other species have inherent rights to exist with us on our planet.”