The up-listing of east coast koalas from Vulnerable to Endangered this March is something the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) campaigned for over the past two years, since the Black Summer fires struck at the heart of already vulnerable koala populations, pushing them to the brink.
When the news finally came, however, it was bittersweet.
Bitter in that it is now official—the species is one step further along the road to extinction. Australia holds the shameful title of having the world’s worst mammal extinction rate. Now the koala—one of our most iconic and beloved animals—is at real risk of joining that list.
Bitter in that it could have been avoided. The writing has been on the wall for the species for a long time, yet business as usual has continued, with koalas losing out to the interests of big development time and time again.
Sweet, in that their dire situation has now officially been recognised and our call has been answered.
IFAW’s campaign was a truly ‘koalaborative’ effort and garnered the support of over a quarter of a million people around the world. However, the fact koalas in Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW) and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) have gone from Vulnerable to Endangered in a decade is not something to be proud of. It should serve as a stark warning that something needs to radically change if we don’t want to see them hit the Critically Endangered list in another 10 years’ time, and extinct by 2050. It is also meaningless unless we address the root cause of the species’ decline across its entire range —habitat loss and climate change. Without this, it’s a mere band-aid.
It remains to be seen whether the recent up-listing will provide the level of protection koalas so desperately need against harmful developments, one of which is currently threatening Sydney’s last remaining healthy koala population.
It’s also important to remember that the endangered listing doesn’t apply to koala populations in Victoria and South Australia, due to their more abundant populations. But numbers don’t always tell the full story, and these koalas face just as many threats—the number one being habitat loss.
As the trees they call home are bulldozed to make way for swathes of blue gum plantations, koalas are forced to move into temporary homes, only to be killed, injured and displaced during harvesting. This is a welfare crisis we simply cannot ignore.
Soon after the up-listing, the NSW government announced it will spend $193 million over five years on a range of koala conservation measures including purchasing and restoring key habitat as part of its commitment to double the animals’ numbers in the state by 2050. This is in addition to the federal government’s announcement to spend $50 million over four years for national recovery efforts. But, both announcements do not address the overriding threat facing this endangered species, and that is loss of habitat through land clearing and the compounding impact of climate change.
Approximately 44 per cent of Australian forests and woodlands have been cleared since European settlement largely for agriculture and development. Land clearing destroys and fragments habitats, endangers animals, increases soil erosion, contributes to pollution, increases flooding risk and even exacerbates the effects of climate change. Due to climate change, bushfires are also increasing in intensity and scale. The 2019/2020 black summer bushfires saw more than 18 million hectares of habitat lost – much of which was core koala habitat in NSW, QLD and Victoria.
So, while the recent announcements and commitments by governments are a welcome step in recognising the plight of these koala populations, it is not enough in and of itself to save the species from slipping closer to extinction. It is not a victory and it is not the end. Koalas don’t stand a chance unless we protect the trees and land they call home.
The real victory will come when koalas and their habitats everywhere are given the protections needed so they can thrive in the wild.
Josey Sharrad / IFAW
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Banner Image: Mosswood Wildlife in Koroit, Victoria. Photo © IFAW.