Found in coastal regions of eastern and southern Australia, the Koala is a mammal that looks like the wombat but has thicker coat, longer limbs and bigger ears. Although it is not a bear but an arboreal herbivorous marsupial, the koala is often referred to as koala bear.Image: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/4/49/Koala_climbing_tree.jpg/610px-Koala_climbing_tree.jpg DAVID ILIFF

The Australian government is taking an unusual step to help save the koala – the very symbol of the country – from extinction.

State officials from the province of Queensland have offered homeowners £15 million (about $24 million) to buy back property in order to expand the habitat for the ever-dwindling marsupial species.

"We have allocated $AUS22.5 million over the next three years to buy land and expand koala habitat in areas where their territory is under significant pressure," said Environment Minister Andrew Powell earlier this month.

About 150 Australian homeowners have thus far taken up the offer. Their relinquished properties will be converted into national parks and animal refuges.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that in Queensland alone the expansion of urban sprawl has caused a 40 percent plunge in the state's koala population in recent years.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has already listed the koala as a “threatened species” in the provinces of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory, due to, among other factors, threats posed by automobiles, dogs, bushfires, logging, deforestation, disease as well as urban expansion.

Activists fear the koala could completely vanish in some parts of the country within a decade. Queensland has suffered the most precipitous decline in koala numbers.

As such, Australian conservationists warn the government buyback scheme is inadequate in dealing with a much larger problem.

"I have to put my cynical hat on and say that it's just a giant public relations exercise," said Deborah Tabart, the chief of the Australian Koala Foundation, according to the Telegraph.

"If I saw the Government doing this along with constraints on developers, making sure that habitats aren't knocked down in the first place, then I would absolutely applaud it, but what I see is that they reduce legislation."

The AKF estimates that there are fewer than 80,000 koalas left in the wild -- possibly as few as 43,000 – adding that the species should be classified as “critically endangered.”

However, koalas have been declining in numbers for the past 150 years, having never recovered from the ravages of the fur trade.

According to the Endangered Species Handbook, millions of koalas roamed Australia prior to European colonization, feasting on plentiful eucalyptus forests.

Beginning in the 19th century, Koalas were hunted mercilessly by European settlers for their soft fur pelts and were entirely helpless in the face of guns and dogs,” the handbook said.

The major means used by professional hunters were poisoning and snaring, and by the late 19th century, 300,000 Koala pelts a year were being shipped to the London fur market. By the early 20th century, they were almost eliminated in the southern half of the country and became extinct in South Australia in the early 1930s.”