'Dying off': Vet warns koala numbers could suffer 'big crash'

Koala numbers could dramatically “crash” without urgent action, a leading koala vet has warned.

While at first glance there appears to be thriving populations of the cuddly marsupials across the Gold Coast, but many are likely not reproducing, Currumbin Wildlife Hospital’s senior vet, Dr Michael Pyne, said.

Witnessing a staggering increase in koalas suffering from chlamydia, Dr Pyne believes that a large number of the animals living in the regions’ are likely sterile.

Left - a koala up a tree with a wet bottom. Right - A koala on the ground with red eyes
Signs of Chlamydia include wet bottoms and red eyes. Source: Wildcare Australia

Many of the marsupials are not showing signs of the illness as they have not been seriously ill, but because the disease has damaged their reproductive organs, they’re now unable to reproduce.

Once those koalas reach the end of their lives, the concern is that there will not be enough young to replace them.

“We could be sitting on a lot of koalas out there in the wild that are propping up the numbers,” Dr Pyne said.

“So it’s not appearing so bad, because there’s a number of koalas out there, but they’re not producing any young.

“Then there’s a big crash in numbers because the older ones are dying off but there’s no younger ones coming through."

$7000 to treat a koala for chlamydia

In 2008, Currumbin Wildlife Hospital saw just 27 koala patients, but that number has been steadily increasing with a staggering 600 treated in 2019.

Figures from the hospital show more than half the koalas admitted were sick or dying from chlamydia, and many of them sadly were unable to recover.

A koala with chlamydia in a tree with her baby.
A koala in care at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital for chlamydia nurses her joey. Source: Steve Holland

The disease affects male, female and infant koalas, with outward signs being conjunctivitis and a wet, discoloured bottom.

Left untreated, chlamydia damages the urinary and reproductive tract, infecting the testes and ovaries.

All koalas entering the hospital are given a thorough examination, including bloodwork, and those who show signs of being able to recover are treated over a four to six-week-period, with the antibiotics costing $7000 for each animal.

The disease is relatively new to koalas and is thought to have been spread through the introduction of cattle to Australia, which carry a similar form of the disease.

A graph showing koala chlamydia rates.
Koalas admitted to the hospital suffering from chlamydia has skyrocketed over the last decade. Source: Currumbin Wildlife Hospital

New vaccine could ensure survival of koalas

Dr Pyne is hopeful that a new chlamydia vaccine being trialed by the hospital could be a game changer when it comes to improving koala birthrates.

Close to 100 koalas have been given the treatment, and it is now established practice to vaccinate koalas at the hospital before release.

In order to understand the efficacy of the vaccine, the vaccine is also being rolled out to treat healthy koalas in the region’s most disease prone suburb, Elanora.

Situated on the south end of the Gold Coast, virtually every koala that comes in for treatment is suffering from clinical or subclinical form of the disease.

Roughly 300 koalas are thought to live in the area, and this is likely half the number that resided there six years ago.

So bad is the situation, that so far, the only two young koalas without infection have been located and vaccinated.

Those koalas have been radio collared and will be captured every six months for testing to assess their general health and whether they’re negative for chlamydia.

“We need to really challenge (the vaccine) to see how good it is,” Dr Pyne said.

“If we can vaccinate koalas, put them back into a very diseased population, and these koalas don’t get sick from chlamydia, we really are starting to get confident that vaccines doing what it’s meant to be doing.”

Anyone who sees a sick or injured koala can call Wildcare Australia on (07) 5527 2444 if on the Gold Coast, or their local wildlife group or vet in other locations.

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