Amongst the gum-leaves, in a forest in south-eastern Australia, a wild koala family lives, loves, fights and makes up in front of researchers and tourists.
Just like Alexis Carrington or Stephanie Forrester the matriarch, Smoky, is the star. Beautiful despite her years, her face still graces covers of brochures and websites all over the world. Smoky lives in the finest eucalyptus mansion in the district, which she shares with her adult daughter Pat. Hers is a life of elegant retirement – watching over the young ones, relaxing in the sunshine, and summer loving with a Gum-leaf aperitif in her hand.
Female koalas are headstrong. They live long-term in their leafy homes, while young males come and go. They usually have a new “husband” every couple of years. But these girls are renowned for playing around! They often mate with males other than their husband, sometimes travelling long distances to find a younger man!
Now past her breeding days, Smoky is still very popular with the fellas. One summer day Wildlife Guide Martin and his guests saw Smoky sharing a tree with her male neighbour Ngallo. Smoky and Ngallo had lived in nearby areas for many years, but we had no idea they secretly had a crush going on. While the group watched, Ngallo approached Smoky very, very slowly. Smoky sat quietly on the branch, her back turned to Ngallo, winking over her shoulder at him. He inhaled her scent. Tentatively he placed one hand on her back, then another. He nuzzled her all over. She accepted this slow and rather clumsy embrace, but looked at him as if to say “What sort of a man are you? I need ACTION!” Ngallo ramped it up. He went for the front-on cuddle (not normal koala foreplay!), and by this time Smoky was getting annoyed. This is not how it’s done. She yelled at him: “Yack, yack yack!” Ngallo was put off and a bit intimidated. He bit her, which was an error. By now she was really grumpy, and turned to face him, biting, yelling and scratching. Smoky is a big koala, and Ngallo found this was getting all too hard…. Well, it all ended in tears and no baby!
Pat, Smoky’s adult daughter is every bit as proud and independent as her mother. Two feisty sheilas in one house? That spells trouble. Maybe they had a disagreement, and Pat left Smoky’s tree at only 13 months old to do her own thing. For months mother and daughter were at opposite ends of Smoky’s home range.
As an 18 month old Pat started “clubbing” (going out, meeting boys). At this age – the equivalent of a 14 year old human – it would have been awkward for Pat to get pregnant. She was still small and fairly vulnerable, and the long drought was affecting the survival rates of full-grown koalas. So mum came to the rescue! Every time we saw Pat with a male koala, Smoky was in attendance. And it worked! Pat did not raise a baby that year.
By 2008 Pat was a 3 year old, tall, confident and strong. She did have a baby that year, and we named him Pitta. Pitta was born into the 13th year of our most terrible drought. There had been almost no rain for all that time, and koalas all over Australia were suffering. Bravely, Pat raised Pitta, giving him milk for a whole difficult year. Her body struggled to meet his demands. She wasn’t getting enough water to maintain herself, let alone a hungry youngster. We watched as her health slowly declined. She became skinny, her ears lost their fluffiness, her face became gaunt.
Late in his first year, Pitta was often demanding milk that Pat was reluctant to give. We watched as he tried again and again to suckle from Pat’s pouch. Suckling can be awkward – koala pouches are located on the lower belly, and the opening is on the underside. All Pat had to do was sit, knees curled up, and Pitta could not get to her pouch for love or money. He would push and shove, try approaching from below, then climb above her and come down head-first. It was quite funny to watch! Every now and again Pat would give up and let him nurse for a couple of minutes. When he was really naughty she would give him a smack, but they loved each other so much that they quickly returned to cuddling and nuzzling each other.
Pitta first left Pat’s tree at only 9 to 10 months, and completely left the area by the time he was 12 months old. From other experience of baby koalas, he was an early starter. We wonder if he left because Pat couldn’t support him anymore without endangering her own life.
After Pitta left Pat remained thin for some time. We were terribly worried about her.
Another year went by without rain, and fortunately Pat did not have another baby in 2009.
Finally, after 14 years of drought, the rains came. 2010 brought life back to the forest, and a new life to Pat & Smoky’s family. We called him Clancy, a name out of legend in Australia.
We will never forget the first day we saw him. We were running a charity tour for local sick kids and their families. Two families came walking through the gum-trees with us, but one of the little kids was missing – her name was Clancy and she was in hospital, too sick to come out. We looked up at Pat and suddenly a tiny head popped out and stared at us! We just had to call the baby Clancy. It was like nature’s gift to that sick little girl.
Clancy has been very special to us. He is a symbol of the life-saving rains, of hope, and his mother’s return to health. He lived with Pat until he was 20 months old (much longer than his brother!) then moved a little to the north, then east. There he bumped into Winberry, a very big strong male, and quite wisely bounced back into a safer area. Luckily he stayed there, and we have seen him ever since. It is very exciting. In 15 years of monitoring wild koalas we have never had the opportunity to watch a young male take his first steps into the world after he’s left his mother.
To support Clancy we’ve started a voluntourism project to improve habitat in his region. On our new Koalas & Kangaroos In The Wild tour guests can help him, and other koalas, by removing a weed that is degrading koala habitat. In just one year, we will create a whole new home range for a koala like Clancy.
It’s important we do this, and quickly. Smoky has a new granddaughter, and Clancy a little sister – her name is Banjo. In six to twelve months she will need a home. The leaves of her life are just beginning to grow, and hopefully she will have as many leaves as she wants.Share This: