Dark clouds rolled in from the West, a stout breeze built overpowering the usual sounds of the forest. And then just as swiftly as the breeze came it left, and with it the stench of briny urine and partially digested eucalyptus leaves. A strange quiet drifted in and enveloped us. The cackling kookaburras hushed and the crows became unusually quiet. With each slowly placed barefoot step, we glided along as noiselessly as we could, placing one foot after another trying desperately to move as quietly as possible. Despite being in a patrolled national park we had long since lost our way. In a panic, we had run off the trail and although we knew we could be no more than a mile or two away from the trail we couldn’t be sure which way it was. It was in this doldrum we regrouped and assessed what had just happened.
Only moments before we had been tramping along one of the many scenic trails in Great Otway National Park in Victoria Australia, admiring the forest and looking for Koalas. Sitting at the far south-east end of Victoria only a few hours’ drive from Melbourne along the Great Ocean road, Cape Otway is where the Southern Ocean meets the Bass Strait and the site of many ship wrecks along the forbidding and sheer coastline. What brought us there was a warning from our Australian friends Jenny and Kevin. A warning we chose not to heed.
Over a dinner one night at Jenny and Kevin’s place in King Cliff on the norther border of New South Wales they told us of another deadly Australian animal. One we had not heard or read about. They told us of a rare marsupial that was known to only a few remote parts of Australia, considered to be extinct by many and seen by an unlucky few, Thylarctos plummetus, as it is known in Latin, or the Drop Bear colloquially. Flippantly Kevin and Jenny asked us if we had heard of the drop bear. Assuming this was some sort of outback jackalope or snipe, I played along, hoping Jessie would be taken in by this obvious ruse. They continued on deliberately quiet as though we might be overheard. They told us about this rare arboreal predator. Apparently, this creature was similar to the Koala, but much larger and an omnivore, consuming the eucalyptus leaves in times of plenty, but when required it could catch its dinner by waiting silently in the treetops and dropping down on its unsuspecting prey. It’s sabretooth canines protruding from its closed mouth and claws that were centimeters long, which of course meant nothing to us as we don’t acknowledge the metric system. I played along and even added a few embellishments for good measure. I believe I even made a reference to the Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog from Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail. Jessie laughed and quickly realized we were pulling her leg. Or at least I thought we were.
As I laughed, Kevin leaned in across the table from me and stared for an uncomfortably long time, a time I tried to fill with uneasy banter, but his silence drew us still and he added unflinchingly, “It’s not a joke. The bears are real and can pose a danger if you don’t watch out” His stern admonition left little doubt. He was telling what he believed to be the truth. It sounded too fantastic to be true, but Kevin can be quite intense when he wants and so we were left a bit confused, but figured as everything else in this country is deadly, why not a koala too. Only 2 weeks later we came to learn first-hand the damage these bears can do.
In our usual custom I was off the trail exploring, wandering further and further off the beaten path reciting some poem by Robert Frost as my justification as Jessie attempted to maternally herd me back toward the relative safety of the trail and civilization. Whether it’s a cliff, or a dangerous animal or climbing a tall tree I am drawn toward the path less traveled, usually unaware I am slowly getting lost. Our exploring Ying and Yang oscillate this way, me carelessly wandering, and Jessie vigilantly trying to invisibly protect me. I wandered deeper and deeper into the forest after a Spotted-tailed Quoll, a relative of the Tasmanian Devil, and colloquially known as the ‘Tiger Quoll’ trying to get a photo of it. This photo would be a very unique opportunity as only one had been previously seen in the park in the last 24 years. I had it in frame and was just about to snap a picture when Jessie crunched up. The Tiger Quoll heard the noise on the trail and sauntered off. Crestfallen, I told Jessie that the only way we could move quietly through the forest and hope to get a photo of this creature was to leave our shoes. Our barefoot hunt began. Without the protection of a shoe each step is placed deliberately, carefully… noiselessly. Me again pursuing the photo and Jessie silently pursuing me. Knowing I had only a few moments before her protests would be verbalized I dithered off just out of range of her reminder we had better get back to the trail. No more than one hundred yards on I again spotted the Quoll and froze so as not to disturb it. As I spent an eternity getting the camera settings right it briefly occurred to me how incredible a backdrop I had found. In this part of the forest all the trees were dead. It was an arboreal graveyard with the skeletal trunks strewn as far as the eye could see. A gray maze of leafless branchless corpses stretching to the horizon.
Just as I snapped the photo I felt an odd sensation. That feeling that someone is watching you. Just as the aperture opened it hit me. A clawing biting mass of unbelievably soft fur and muscle hit me and knocked me to the ground. It couldn’t have weighed more than a medium-sized dog, according to Kevin they could get up to 40 KG, but I hadn’t bothered to convert that so I had no idea how heavy this thing could be. What ensued was a struggle, or I assumed it was a struggle because I lay helpless on the ground as Jessie ran over and kicked the thing. Like the American footballers of years past too tough to wear cleats, with her naked foot she punted the ferocious fur ball snarling and spitting as it careened toward a manna gum tree. She grabbed me and we took off. Just then another bear dropped in front of us, cutting off the route we had come in. I grabbed her hand and we took off deeper into the forbidding forest; our bare feet sprinting through the barren landscape.
We ran on for what seemed an eternity, eventually stopping to catch our breath. Our hearts racing and out of breath still zooming with adrenaline we made sure we hadn’t been followed. It then occurred to me that perhaps we should look up. As we did, we noticed more bears in the bows above us. A mother with a cub only a few trees away appeared to be sleeping and we spotted 4 more in the surrounding withered trees.
Silently we inched our way toward the greener trees in the distance. For the next 45 minutes, we moved at a snail’s pace trying to move as quietly as possible. Eventually we found our way back to one of the trails and then ran all the way back to our car.
As we returned to the sanctuary of our Toyota Corolla hatchback we finally felt safe again. In our protected bubble we finally could discuss what had just happened. Though the exact timeline and details we could not agree on, what we did agree on was how lucky we were to have escaped unharmed. Well mostly…Jessie had possibly broken her big toe and I had a few cuts and bite marks from the struggle.
On our drive out of the park we passed by one of the park rangers and told him of our encounter. It was clear he didn’t believe us, but when we told him of the gray dead forest his gaze changed. It was though we had stumbled into an area of the park we were not supposed to see. Though he laughed off our explanation of the drop bear and denied the gray dead forest we had seen, I could tell he knew of the dead zone.
Grove of dead Manna Gum trees over grazed by Koalas
After some research, we were able to confirm our suspicions. The dead trees we had seen were manna gum trees and they are native to the park and Victoria. It turns out that the Koalas we had seen had been reintroduced as the original population had been decimated due to hunting, land clearance, wildfires and disease pressure. As always there were more than a few unintended consequences from this re-introduction. The Manna Gum, in comparison to most other eucalypts have leaves that are especially soft, contain a lot of water and are rich in highly digestible protein. Normally when koalas start to overgraze the gum trees sprout new leaves. These young leaves have a higher concentration of tannin and are more toxic and encourage the Koalas to move on to other trees giving the overgrazed tree a defense and time to regenerate. Unfortunately for the both the tree and the Koalas the Manna Gum leaves contain very little tannin and their new sprouts are just as nutritious as the older leaves. As the trees sprout more leaves the Koalas eat them and thus beings the death spiral for the trees. What we had seen deep in the forest was one such grove where this had happened to hundreds of trees.
As food gets scarce the Koalas starve. With high poulation densitities and little contiguous habitat they become marooned in dead pockets of forest unable to move on to greener pastures. In 2013 the problem was so bad that koalas were falling out of trees and many mothers had abandoned their young Joeys. The park service had to euthanize over 700 undernourished and starving animals. Many other healthy Koalas were tagged and moved to other habitats.
Although drop bears are just a mythological creature created to get kids to behave and tourists to walk around with forks in their hair and Vegemite behind their ears (legitimate ways to ward off the drop bears I am told) the actual devastation being caused is horrific. An over abundant population without predators, hunting and bushfires to regulate their numbers has eaten their way through an old forest unable to defend itself. It was sad to see the devastation caused to this ecosystem. And in a sad and poetic twist of irony the bears here do drop from the trees from hunger, but unfortunately, it’s not to eat the tourists. What was at first a humorous and unbelievable warning became a vivid cautionary tale of the importance of balance in every ecosystem.