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Australian gov't to protect koala bears

Baby Koalas in Cleveland

May 7, 2010: A 9-month-old baby koala, left, ventures from his mother at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland. The zoo's other adult koala also has a baby in her pouch.AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

The Australian government announced Monday that the country's most vulnerable koala populations will be protected by federal legislation.

"People have made it very clear to me that they want to make sure the koala is protected for future generations," Environment Minister Tony Burke said, adding that AU$300,000 (US$314,000) was allocated to research the animal's habitats.

However, the legislation only applies to koalas in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.

Professor Alistair Melzer, a koala scientist at the University of Central Queensland and longtime activist, praised the move as a step in the right direction but told reporters, "This listing [as a vulnerable species] alone will not save the koala."

"It's basically a label that says we've got to a point where koalas are in serious trouble and need careful management if they're going to survive," he added.

The decision to extend protection for the cuddly creatures followed a multiyear national scientific assessment and a senate inquiry into koalas that led to the country's first comprehensive parliamentary report on a species.

It means that developers will have to consider what effects building could have on the much-loved marsupials.

The protective measures came after one of the furry-eared tree huggers was refused entry to parliament last week. Despite being admitted to the legislature last year, koala Winston and his handlers were turned away last Thursday on the grounds that the notoriously-sleepy animal could be a security threat -- forcing him to find a shady spot in a nearby tree from which to contemplate the political debate.