Koalas May Not Be Functionally Extinct, But They Are In Big Trouble

Koalas rely on eucalyptus trees for their survival. Image: Mathias Appel/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

The bushfires that have been raging across Australia over recent weeks pose a major threat to much of the country’s iconic wildlife, with koalas among the most vulnerable creatures. Unlike wombats, which are able to survive forest fires by burrowing underground, or fast-moving kangaroos, the famously sleepy koalas tend to climb to the top of the nearest tree and curl into a ball when in danger, which obviously is not the best tactic in a fire.

Tragically, many koalas have already fallen victim to this year’s excessive infernos, with the plight of the marsupial gaining attention after a video of a woman rescuing a badly burnt koala from a bushfire in New South Wales went viral.

According to the nearby Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, some three-quarters of bushfires in the state are burning on “prime koala habitat”, with 350 individuals already having been found dead.

Even those that do manage to escape the flames are likely to suffer from the destruction of huge numbers of eucalyptus trees, which the marsupials rely on for food. An adult koala eats around a kilogram of eucalyptus leaves per day, and despite being a fast-growing tree that tends to do well after fires, it will be several months before any of the burnt specimens regrow, meaning many koalas could face starvation.

It has been estimated that around 1,000 koalas may have already died and up to 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed as 2.5 million acres have burned across Queensland and New South Wales in the last two months. This has led to repetition of the claims initially made in May by the Australian Koala Foundation (AFK) that the species may now be “functionally extinct”, meaning their numbers and genetic diversity are so low that there is no hope of recovery.

While it’s certainly true that koalas face increasing dangers as their habitat continues to disappear, that they are functionally extinct remains unlikely, with widely differing population counts. A 2016 study on eliciting population trends estimated population numbers to be around 329,000 – significantly higher than the figure of 80,000 cited by the AFK

According to Christine Adams-Hosking from the University of Queensland and one of the authors of the 2016 paper, koalas have become locally extinct in some areas of Australia, but remain abundant in others. Their study estimated a huge 53 percent decrease in koala populations in Queensland, but just a 3 percent decrease in South Australia. Overall, though, numbers are expected to continue to fall if more efforts are not made to protect the koalas and their habitat.

The species has been listed as vulnerable in Queensland and New South Wales since 2012, and with no end in sight to the bushfires in either of these states, there’s no denying that koalas are badly in need of help.

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