3 May 2024


Found exercising their natural ‘licence to chill’ in trees all up and down the east coast of Australia, the koala is arguably Australia's most iconic and beloved animal. As many Australians know, the cuddly-looking creature affectionately called the ‘koala bear’ is not a bear. This special marsupial has captured imaginations for many years - an encounter with them is certainly on many travellers’ bucket lists when visiting Australia. But the koala’s relationship with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples is sacred, enduring, and not as widely understood.

The name "koala" itself derives from the Dharug language of the Sydney basin, meaning "no drink" - referring to the fact that this iconic animal receives almost all of its hydration needs from the moisture in eucalyptus leaves. 

For First Peoples, the koala's cultural importance endures for generations through Dreaming stories, art, and spiritual beliefs inextricably tying this creature to the land. The places that the koala calls home is koala Country. In many Aboriginal cultures, the koala is a revered totem animal, featuring prominently in Creation myths and legends passed down through oral traditions for thousands of years.

Wild koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) sitting on ground, Kangaroo Island, South Australia.
Koala sitting on ground © Theo Allofs / Getty Images

One of the most famous Dreaming stories is that of the Gumbaynggir people of the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Their tale tells of the "Dunggirr Gagu" or Koala Brothers, who used their long intestines to create a bridge reuniting the Gumbaynggir and Ngambaa peoples after rising seas threatened to separate them. This powerful story emphasises the koala's role in bringing people together and its association with major environmental forces like rising seas and drought. 

Koala mother and joey
Koala mother and joey © istockphoto / Stanciuc

For the Bunuba people of Western Australia's Kimberley region, the koala-like tree-dwelling mammal is represented in the stars as the creator-being ‘Ungud’ who formed the landscape, trees and other natural features. These celestial connections reflect the koala's place at the very origins of the world and its intrinsic links to the cycles of nature.

Maryanne the koala with WWF-Australia's Head of Regenerative Country Darren Grover - 1000px © WWF-Australia / Mark Symons

Other Aboriginal groups associate the koala with rain and drought through stories of the ‘drought maker’ or rain-controlling koala figures. The legendary ‘Koobor’ of southeast Queensland is said to possess special powers over rainfall, demonstrating the koala's symbolic relationship to one of nature's most precious and vital elements. When the usually sleepy Koobor becomes active, it is seen as an omen that drought is coming. Read more about the Kooboor the Koala here.

Beyond the Dreaming and oral tales, the koala features prominently in Aboriginal artwork, carvings, and rock paintings across Australia. These artistic representations often carry themes of respect, stewardship and First Peoples deep connection with koala Country.

Koalas in distress were sadly in many of the most recognised and circulated images from the devastating 2019-20 bushfires. This is one of many threats the koala currently faces - everything from habitat loss and disease to climate change. 

Koala sitting on road
Koala sitting on road - koala campaign use only © Cheryl Ridge

In a heartbreaking outcome, the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) was sadly uplisted to Endangered in early 2022

Its cultural significance is one of the many reasons for supporting efforts to ensure this beloved marsupial will endure and thrive again across its native lands. Whether portrayed as a Creation myth hero, an ecological omen, or a global icon, the koala's importance transcends cultures as a shared ambassador for Australia's remarkable biodiversity and Indigenous heritage.

The koala's enduring cultural significance is sure to only grow stronger as we face the critical challenges of preserving its future and ancient stories.