Australia's iconic and adorable koala has been given an official endangered listing across most of its range, reflecting the many dangers causing a rapid population collapse. Environmentalists and tourist operators are waiting to see whether the listing leads to meaningful action to protect the somnolent marsupials.
The listing was announced by the federal Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, based on a recommendation by a scientific committee. “Today I am increasing the protection for koalas in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, listing them as endangered rather than their previous designation of vulnerable,” Ley said.
For many the only surprise was that it took this long. Koala numbers were greatly affected by hunting for their fur a century ago, but initially recovered when this stopped. More recently however, they have been hit by a lethal combination of habitat loss, climate change, car accidents, dog attacks, bushfires and chlamydia.
Despite high numbers in isolated locations, koala populations have halved in the last 20 years. A parliamentary inquiry found that by 2050 current trends suggest koalas will be extinct in the wild in New South Wales, and other states will likely follow.
“Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline. Today’s decision is welcome, but it won’t stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it’s accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes,” said WWF-Australia conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch in a statement.
Warnings signs have been seen for decades. There was a hit song in 1986 about the charismatic furballs' fate. With cuddling a koala listed as a primary goal by international tourists, their decline is an economic, as well as environmental, disaster.
Politicians, however, have been slower to act. The New South Wales government was thrown into crisis last year when part of its ruling coalition refused to support legislation to protect koala habitat. Nine years ago a recovery plan was identified as necessary, but so far none has been implemented. Scientists and environment groups expressed hopes the listing will change this.
The federal government finally came through with $50 million (US $36 million) for support, but has taken little action on underlying causes such as habitat loss. In listing reasons for the koala's decline in her announcement, Ley conspicuously failed to mention climate change.
The same forests in which koalas make their homes also house hundreds of lower-profile species, many also threatened or endangered, and most efforts to protect koalas are likely to have knock-on benefits for these.