The koala is worth $1.1 billion & 9000 jobs

Koalas and Tourism: An Economic Evaluation (pdf file)
How Save the Koala Tours can help save Koalas

Sitting pretty, munching on gumleaves and making no fuss, Australia's Koalas form the backbone of a lucrative tourism industry. In 1996 alone, revenue of $1.1 billion was injected into Australia's economy by foreign tourists who came here to see Koalas. This translates into around 9,000 jobs directly accounted for by Koalas. These are expected to increase rapidly over the next decade.

For the first time a conservation group - the Australian Koala Foundation - has put a dollar figure on the Koala in an endeavour to make people and politicians understand how important it is to our country.

  • How much of that $1.1 billion is put back to conserving the species? Almost nothing.
  • Will Australia's decision makers really understand the implications of that figure and put some real measures in place to protect the species?
  • Does the tourism industry recognise the importance of securing the future of this economic resource and conserving the Koala?
  • Will the tourism industry see it as their responsibility?

The study entitled "Koalas and Tourism: An Economic Evaluation" was commissioned by the Australian Koala Foundation and undertaken by The Australia Institute and the University of Queensland to put a dollar value on what Koalas make for the tourism industry.

"A large and rapidly growing part of the Australian economy has been built on the promotion of images of exotic fauna and outback expanses" says Dr Clive Hamilton of The Australia Institute and joint author of the study.

"This study of the contribution of Koalas to the Australian tourism industry is the first systematic attempt to evaluate the economic role of this creature" he says.

"The results of this study indicate that the importance of Koalas is even greater than previously believed" he says.

"The future of the tourism industry depends heavily on the protection of our natural environment" Dr Clive Hamilton says.

Deborah Tabart Executive Director of the Australian Koala Foundation says "Although the $1.1 billion income figure tells us koalas are important to the economy and the nation, I think we are still a long way from making people understand that:

  1. The conservation movement does not receive any benefit from that money
  2. Someone will have to put something back into protecting habitat if they want to conserve the resource i.e. Koalas
  3. Koalas won't last forever unless we protect them now

"I fear that politicians will jump on this bandwagon but do nothing to understand what we are saying," says Deborah Tabart.

"If you compare how much Australia's woodchip industry brings in with how much Koala tourism brings in, it illustrates how important the Koala is as an economic resource (export of woodchips brought in $543 million in the 1995/6 year)*" she says.

"If Australia ensures the survival of the koala, it will provide an income that is secure into the future" Deborah Tabart says.

"What would happen to that annual $1.1 billion income and those 9000 jobs if the koala were to become extinct?" she asks.

"The preservation of the species is seen by the community as the responsibility of the 'greenies'. We hope this study will make people realise that the koala's conservation is everyone's responsibility including tour companies, airlines, hotels and anyone else enjoying the benefits of overseas tourism" she says.

"As a conservationist, I believe koalas must be preserved for their intrinsic worth but those in positions of power do not necessarily see them the same way" she says.

"Money talks and we hope this figure will make tourist operators understand the need to preserve the species in the wild and make our leaders rethink their policies with regard to Koala conservation" she says.

"I don't believe that Australian businesses including those in the tourism industry understand the implications of losing Koalas in the wild. If you don't have wild Koalas, you won't have captive Koalas for very much longer" Deborah Tabart says.

"We're not naive enough to think that suddenly the tourism industry will start handing over money for conservation but if and when they realise how lucrative happy healthy Koala colonies are to their business, we hope they will become our strongest allies" Deborah Tabart concludes.

For more information contact Deborah Tabart (07) 3229 7233 or by email

* Figure provided by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra

The study into "The Economic Impact of Koalas on the Australian Tourism Industry" was funded by the Australian Koala Foundation. Australia's Wonderland, Dreamworld and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary also contributed funding.



PH: 617 3229 7233 FAX: 617 3221 0337

Save the Koala Tours is owned by the not for profit Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) and every dollar raised through its efforts is diverted into the work of the AKF. It was formed in April, 1993.

More importantly participants of Save the Koala Tours plant trees, some of which are now in the wild. More than 25,000 trees have been planted through this programme and this paper will explore the conservation benefits.

The author will also outline the problems associated with Save the Koala Tours, not necessarily from an economic standpoint, but from a conservation standpoint.

Save the Koala Tours began by planting trees in wildlife parks and zoos as supplement food for captive Koalas, thereby reducing the need to collect eucalyptus leaves from the wild. In recent years Save the Koala Tours began planting in the wild which has directly helped Koalas under immense urban pressures.

The paper will explain the challenges that have been experienced over the last 8 years and will also identify logical solutions for some of those problematic areas.

The first Save the Koala Tour was at Australia's Wonderland at the Australian Wildlife Park on 14th April, 1993. It was documented in the international National Geographic magazine when they reported on Koalas in their April, 1995 edition. The tours began because the AKF wanted to regenerate the bush and help Koalas in the wild.

I attended that planting and it was very moving. An old Japanese woman came up to me and asked the interpreter to tell me how important it was to her. She was in her seventies and she told me that it was an experience she would take to her grave. She also said it was the first time in her life that she had put her hands in the earth - an amazing concept for me.

It made me realise the importance of nature to people who have had it removed from their lives.

Everyone on that tour shared a few tears in that sweet moment and I have experienced this on several tours since.

Last year when a group of young Japanese "Koala"ambassadors came to Australia, I experienced exactly the same thing with a young anorexic woman who seemed to make it her life's work to plant her trees.

It was almost as though her life depended upon it. I often think of that young woman and I wonder whether it helped her with her own plight.

Save the Koala Tours is very important to me, not only because it is part of our business, but because I feel that it helps change lives.

I suspect everyone in the tourist industry has felt some of these feelings particularly those of us involved in eco-and cultural tourism.

However, does it change the environment? Does our Save the Koala Tour business make any difference to the environment generally and can we say that it helps to save Koalas.

The answer to that is not simple. Let me explain.

When Mr. Robert Gleeson, a friend (originally a volunteer) and I came up with this concept in 1993, we thought it would change the world... well the Koala world anyway.

We originally intended Save the Koala Tours to be marketed to wealthy Americans. We thought it would attract people from that country, who might want a change of pace, who would want to contribute and who would want a five star tour where they got their hands dirty.

The original tour concept was launched at the Australian Consul in New York City.

We had planned a wonderful 10 day trip where we envisaged a hard morning's work planting trees in the bush for benefit of wild Koalas, then to lunch in a beautiful restaurant, golf in the afternoon and then accommodation in a five star hotel.

Needless to say it was a pipe dream. Not only were we ahead of our time on some of our ideas, but we lacked enough knowledge of the market and its needs. We also had problems. To be absolutely truthful we had problems with practically everything, inbound/outbound operators, prices, existing markets, cuts/markdowns, the list goes on.

How hard it was to break into the market!

What seemed like a great idea, just got harder and harder. I now realise that not only were we ahead of our time, but our good intentions did not necessarily translate into a successful business.

It is too long ago to remember the sequence of events, but in a nutshell, our original 10 day tour turned into a 2 hour 21 minute quickie tour where our international passengers planted a tree in a wildlife park, had their photograph taken with a Koala, ate a lamington and then got back on the bus. Our dreams of the luxury tour and the associated benefit to the environment never materialised.

When I look back I am saddened by this fact and it is only in recent times that we have again looked at planting trees in the wild.

The AKF itself began in 1986 and it originated because a group of interested scientists and business people wanted to fund Koala research. At that time time, it was felt that Koalas were suffering primarily from the disease chlamydia and that more research was needed. I joined the Foundation in February of 1988. Since that time, we have funded over $5m towards research and conservation projects in Australia.

Our main focus now is habitat protection. It became very clear to the AKF that unless Koala habitat is protected, the Koala's future is bleak.

In May 2000, the United States Government listed the Koala as a Threatened species under their Endangered Species Act. Our Government was furious and refuses to acknowledge that the Koala - or more importantly that Koala habitat continues to decline at an alarming rate. In its final determination document, the U.S. quotes "that the amount of native vegetation cleared in Australia in 1990 was more than half that cleared in Brazilian Amazonia" and that "such land clearance is not a phenomenon of the past but is continuing and even intensifying" A few weeks ago the the Australian Conservation Foundation released figures to show that "Australia's landclearing is second only to Zambia among Commonwealth nations".

To many of you this may just sound like green rhetoric, but I ask you to think very deeply about what this means. It means that Koala habitat and indeed many other habitats are being destroyed by lack of vision and leadership.

I have been in my position for nearly 14 years and I have watched Koala habitat destroyed on a daily basis. I have rarely seen a piece of land protected.

For many people the Koalas is seen as an animal that justs sits in a Zoo and most Australians do not give wild animals a thought. No-one can really appreciate that one day there might not be Koalas in the wild and indeed one can delude oneself that they will be safe in the Zoo. They won't. Zoos always need wild animals for their genetic stock and for their long term commercial viability.

Perhaps you could try to imagine for a second, what it must be like to be a Koala in the wild - particularly facing some of the threats of disease, roads, dogs, fires, land clearing, forestry and continual fragmentation of habitat.

It is interesting to note that in our research study entitled "Koalas and Tourism - An Economic Evaluation co-authored by by Dr. Clive Hamilton of the Australia Institute and Professor Tor Hundloe from the University of Queensland (see our website for this document), it was clear that 72% of all tourists interviewed who came to Australia came in part to see a Koala and a massive 70% reported they had actually seen one. One third of these people actually saw Koalas in the wild.

This was a shock, even to us, given that the image of Koalas and tourism is the classic photo opportunity in a zoo.

It is imperative for people in the tourism industry to understand that there is a direct impact on the tourism industry and its future success with the continual degradation of our environment. We need our colleagues in the tourism industry to consider that at some stage in the future there may be no Koalas in the wild and then ask, is there something we can do to prevent that? It is also important to consider whether the tourism industry sees environmental degradation as a problem that they need to consider in their day to day lives.

Extinction of the Koala is not imminent, but it is possible. The AKF tries to not use this word in our educational material. In South East Queensland last year 1250 Koalas went into hospital and only 250 went out back into the wild. 1000 animals died and the current estimate of that population in that region is no more than 5000 animals. This is a clear curve towards extinction. You will remember that Brisbane used to call itself the Koala capital of the world.

This should sound warning bells, but it seems to fall on deaf ears.

Back to Save the Koala Tours.

Because my daily is concerned with habitat destruction, I felt that the only way to protect the land was to either buy it or re-plant it, particularly if you cannot stop the destruction in the first place.

One of our original conditions for planting trees either on public or private land was that we had to have a guarantee that the trees would be protected by some covenant or commitment from the landholder.

To my dismay we found that no local council we approached was prepared to make that commitment.

Originally we had thought that the trees we planted could be re-visited by the people planting and again we found to ourdisappointment that no-one would make the commitment to keep the trees watered or protected.

At every turn we found a problem.

That is why we eventually approached wildlife parks. What they would guarantee was to water the trees, to weed them and in many instances to identify them so that our passengers could re-visit them.

We now plant at Featherdale Wildlife Park and Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary. They are both running out of room to plant trees. We also have Save the Koala Tours at Dreamworld, and because they have no room to plant on the premises, we have a honeymoon tour where the honeymooners make a donation to the AKF and a placque is erected on site to mark their donation. The "Koalas", then send the honeymooners an anniversary card.

To date we have planted in excess of 25,000 trees. Many of the trees planted are cut for feeding captive Koalas

Do you know how much eucalyptus leaf it takes to feed a Koala each day?

Each captive Koala needs to be offered at least 5 kilos of branches and leaf per day. Currently there are approximately 750 captive Koalas in Australia That means that 3.7 tonnes of ecualyptus is cut from the bush and or plantations to satisfy the tourism industry effectively everyday. This is 1,368 tonnes per year. Can you appreciate how much strain this puts on the environment, particularly on the wild Koalas in the habitats where the leaf cutters cut? Given the drought in the last few years, I can speculate that many wild Koalas have either become sick or died from lack of nutrition as a result.

We estimate that there are approximately 100,000 Koalas in the wild. We can only compare this figure to the fact that in the 1920s approximately 3,000,000 koala skins went to market for the fur trade. There is conjecture that a further 7,000,000 Koalas were shot, many of which rotted because the pelts had been damaged. There is documented evidence that sometimes Koalas were skinned alive and returned to their trees.

There has been a significant drop in Koala numbers since the beginning of the century and in my opinion the decline will continue.

It is also extremely important for the tourism industry to recognise that the small number of animals currently in captivity could not sustain the species for any length of time. It is always imperative to have wild genes introduced to the captive population from time to time. I often hear business people suggesting that even if the Koala was to become extinct in the wild, then "never mind, we have them in zoos". This is a delusion, similar to the one that implies that we can clone animals once they are extinct. It is nonsense and must be debunked.

In the tourism study mentioned, it was estimated that Koalas, bring in at least $1b in tourism dollars each year This is a conservative figure and represented the comments by 11% of those interviewed who said, they would not return to Australia if the Koala was "missing" in our country. I am a Tasmanian and my Mum and Dad saw the last Tasmanian Tiger in the Hobart Zoo. I often wonder how long it would be, if for instance the Koala became extinct, before we could use its image again, like you know who, who uses the Tassie Tiger label. To my knowledge the beer label was created approximately 50 years after extinction. Imagine the Australian economy if we could not use the image of the Koala for 50 years because of the shame.

It is a sad state when you cannot get the political forces to understand that without wild habitats, the economic value of the Koala is at risk - not to mention the damage that the loss of the Koala would do to our souls.

In the last five years Save the Koala Tours has welcomed the following numbers of passengers.





No. of Pax




In 1996, one zoo had 160,000 visitors through its doors and another 200,000. We had less than 5% of the market, even in the good times.

Clearly our business has problems.

What caused the downturn?

There are three easily identifiable causes.

  1. The park that used to operate Save the Koala Tours decided to go it alone. They decided to do this because they could not see the "value add" of our Logo and the donation that is incorporated into our price structure. That park will justify that they had to do this because the tour operators were always trying to reduce the price of tours.
  2. We expected the tour operators to stay loyal to us, particularly because many of our passengers are Japanese and the AKF is highly regarded in Japan. Our expectations were not met and it seems price is more important than helping the Koalas. If we were not a charity, we would probably have sued that park for trading off, but we cannot afford to risk our funds in an action of that kind.
  3. We are running out of room to plant trees, and
  4. There has been a downturn in the global economy.
Since September 11, 2001, we have also had several large tours cancel so the next year looks a little grim.

What are we going to do?

We are confident that we can increase our market again and we constantly look for new and innovative tour ideas.

Currently we have Koalas in the Wild packages where passengers plant trees in public areas and the trees are cut to feed sick and injured Koalas while they are in hospital.

We are also starting Koalas in the Wild Tours in Noosa and Ballarat where guides will give talks on the problems facing Koalas in the wild. In Ballarat, trees will be planted on a property called Narmbool, owned and operated by Sovereign Hill.

We anticipate an increase in numbers of our tours.

We have also created Restoration Tours, where we will market for passengers that will want help to restore degraded habitats. The first of these tours will be in Framlingham, north of Warnambool, where an aboriginal reserve has been destroyed by years of logging, grazing, isolation, fire and too many Koalas overbrowsing the limited number of trees. The aboriginal community will hold a corroboree for our guests and hard working field participants.

Our second Restoration Tour is set for the Pilliga Scrub where Tiger Pear is causing Koala deaths. This prickly pear type weed gets into the Koalas feet and the animals die prematurely. We are planning "Earthwatch" type projects where hands on work will eliminate the pear and in the case of Framlingham, dead trees will be felled and new ones planted.

I see this as the future of our Tours.

Make no mistake though, our work is cut out for us. In the Redland Shire Council where we have planted significant numbers of trees, the watering and weeding is now beyond the Council's maintenance budgets.

That has created new problems for us. How do we water the trees that we plant.

We are also concerned that when planting trees in urban areas, many of our passengers are at risk of needle stick injuries, or being bitten by snakes, or breaking their legs along creeks and waterways. Councils are becoming more and more concerned about their liabilities, and although the AKF has personal injury insurance, it makes it more and more difficult for us to encourage new and innovative tours.

Do Save the Koala Tours save Koalas?
Do Save the Koala Tours protect the environment?
Do Save the Koala Tours change people?

Yes and No, to all three.

Every dollar proft from Save the Koala Tours helps the work of the Australian Koala Foundation.

Every tree that is planted, helps the environment, and I have seen Save the Koala Tour passengers become different. More environmentally friendly and aware.

Can we call what we do Eco-tourism?

Yes, I think we can.

But I could never say that it will protect our environment and that it currently makes any signficant change to the way our environment is being degraded.

There are too many forces against both the Koala and its habitat.

Last year, Australia cleared approximately 600,000 hectares. Politicians argue back and forth with the green movement about whether that is native bush or regrowth.

John, Anderson the Deputy Prime Minister really believes that land clearing is under control. Senator Robert Hill, the Federal Environment Minister believes that the Landcare movement is fixing the environment.

Professor Henry Nix once said that the one billion dollars spent so far on the environment through the Natural Heritage Trust is like replacing one floorboard in a house full of whiteants.

Last year, the Landcare movement optimistically estimated that they had restored approximately 75,000 hectares of bush. On current clearing estimates, Australians lost 525,000 hectares of bush that can never be replaced.

What effect that will that have on the tourism industry is anyone's guess, but from a Koala perspective, it is only a question of time before the Koalas that are currently living fairly safely in the wild, will be sent into a further decline.

Many of the Koalas that live in urban environments on the east coast of Australia are perilously close to localised extinction. Populations in the Mulgalands of Queensland, the Pilliga scrub in New South Wales and the Strzelecki Ranges in Victoria are probably fairly secure, but are under threat from either grazing, logging, or landclearing

If the eco tourism industry wants to secure its own future, then all of us will have to ensure that tours called eco-tours actually protect the environment in some way. If Save the Koala Tours doesn't only marginally protects the environment, then I wonder how many do.

Over the course of the few days that we are together, I would like to have the opportunity of expressing my grave concerns to you about our environment. The AKF is not a tour operator although we are extremely proud of our Save the Koala Tour business. Everyone who has attended our tours has been changed in some way.

I am environmentalist who is very concerned for the future of our country and have no faith that our leaders are protecting the future for the Koala or the one billion dollars that it earns every year in its gentle and gracious way.

The Koala needs our concern, it needs our protection and it needs to spend its life living in the bush with dignity and serenity.

Our challenge, all of us is to ensure that all eco-tourism has a positive effect on our environment. Each and everyone of us must consider that protecting the environment is important.

It is imperative from an economic point of view and even more imperative from the position of saving our heritage from destruction.