The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Australia is low on koala food and may need to kill some of the iconic creatures

A colony of koalas in Cape Otway, Australia, may have to be culled for the benefit of the colony as a whole because, according to environmental authorities, their food supply is running out. (Video: Reuters)

No matter how you look at it, the koalas are in trouble.

Manna gum leaves, which koalas eat, are in short supply at Cape Otway, a popular tourist destination that's known for its furry inhabitants. At the same time, the koala population there has ballooned. That means many of these creatures could be starving.

So officials in Australia's state of Victoria announced this week that they will conduct a health assessment of the "overabundant" koala colony at Cape Otway. Female koalas will be implanted with birth control and especially sick and malnourished koalas will be euthanized, officials said.

"Koala welfare and habitat health continue to be our top priorities," Mandy Watson, spokeswoman for Victoria's environmental department, said in a statement. "Any unhealthy koalas, which are deemed too sick to survive release, will be humanely euthanized to prevent further suffering."

Veterinarians and animal health officers will spend a week catching a representative sample of koalas that will be examined and tagged. Officials defended the program as a proactive way to "protect koala welfare," as manna gum foliage has improved slightly in recent years but still can't match the demand.

But critics have condemned the possible cull, which comes after welfare intervention programs in 2013 and 2014 that resulted in koala culls. In 2013, 700 sick or injured koalas were put down, but about 1,500 starving koalas slowly died on their own, Reuters reported.

[Why Australia is killing koala bears]

"You cannot have it both ways, you either want to protect our national icon (and its habitat) and use them as ambassadors or you ruin Australia’s reputation with this disgusting cruelty," Australian Koala Foundation CEO Deborah Tabart said in a statement.

Tabart said the koalas were moved to Cape Otway to attract tourists. "It is a complex problem and there are no easy fixes," she said. "It is not over population of Koalas; it is under population of trees and linked habitats."

Veterinarians and animal health workers will focus on private land, "where koalas are most affected by over-browsing," said Watson, the environmental department spokeswoman.

Conservation groups have also focused on boosting the tree cover in Cape Otway. Volunteers helped plant 8,000 trees in the region last weekend, according to the Conservation Ecology Centre in Cape Otway.

“Vital koala habitat in the Great Ocean Road region is in catastrophic decline – the woodlands have been dying and the koalas that depend upon them are at great risk," the organization's conservation and research manager Jack Pascoe said in a statement.

While koalas enjoy a special cultural significance in Australia — recall U.S. President Barack Obama, among other world leaders, cuddling up with one of the marsupials — they aren't considered endangered. The Australian Department of the Environment lists them as "vulnerable" in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

[This koala hugged Vladimir Putin]

Estimates put the country's koala population at 40,000 to 100,000, according to the Australia Zoo.

But unlike in the north of Australia, Victoria, has a large koala population, according to state officials. The creatures, which live up to 20 years in the wild, typically have one offspring a year.

Aside from development cutting into habitats, koalas face other threats, such as bush fires and disease. And in a recently completed study tracking more than 400 koalas for two years in Brisbane, researchers found that many of the 130 koalas who eventually died had been killed by wild dogs.

"We know that they're facing the threats of habitat loss and cars and disease, but now to know that dogs are taking so many of the animals that are there as well, it's quite concerning," koala ecologist Sean FitzGibbon of the University of Queensland told ABC Australia earlier this year.

READ MORE: This hunter wants an endangered rhino’s head as a trophy. Looks like he’ll get it.

The monarch butterfly might end up on the endangered species list this year

The humane way to kill a toad, according to science