Updated: February 13, 2022 2:31:13 pm
Once found in abundance, Australia’s much-loved koalas have now been officially classified as ‘endangered’ after widespread bushfires, drought and land clearing destroyed much of their eucalyptus-rich habitat.
Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley on Friday announced that the government was upgrading the conservation status of the marsupials from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, based on the recommendation of the threatened species scientific committee.
“The impact of prolonged drought, followed by the black summer bushfires, and the cumulative impacts of disease, urbanisation and habitat loss over the past twenty years have led to the advice,” Ley said, announcing a long-awaited national recovery plan for the koala.
Australia’s Koala population
According to fossil records, Koala species have inhabited parts of Australia for at least 25 million years, a WWF report states. But today, only one species remains — the Phascolarctos cinereus. They are found in the wild in the southeast and eastern sides of Australia — in coastal Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.
Since Europeans first settled in the region, the Koala population has faced widespread habitat loss, particularly due to agriculture and the construction of urban settlements.
They survive on a strict diet of up to a kilogram of eucalyptus leaves every day.
Due to the low nutritional value of these leaves, koalas tend to sleep for extended periods, often up to 18 hours a day, to conserve energy.
Why did the Australian government finally declare Koalas endangered?
Australia’s Koala population has been on the road to extinction for over two decades now. The number of Koalas in NSW declined by between 33 per cent and 61 per cent since 2001, while in Queensland the Koala population decreased by at least half during the same period, according to a report by The Guardian.
But despite several demands by animal rights groups and conservationists, the government has been accused of doing little to protect the species. Koalas were classified as “vulnerable” only in 2012.
During the catastrophic 2019 bushfires in Australia, now known as the ‘Black Summer’, an estimated 60,000 koalas were impacted, with vast swathes of their habitat being blackened and rendered unliveable. More than 12 million acres of land were destroyed across New South Wales alone, CNN reported.
Another major threat is the spread of chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease known to cause blindness and cysts in the koalas reproductive tract.
In 2020, a parliamentary inquiry in NSW found that Koalas would be extinct in the state by 2050 unless the government took urgent action.
Late last month, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government will be spending a record $35 million over the next four years towards the conservation and recovery of the koala population.
“Koalas are one of Australia’s most loved and best-recognised icons, both here at home and across the world, and we are committed to protecting them for generations to come,” Morrison said in a statement. He said that the fund would be used for “restoring koala habitat, improving our understanding of koala populations, supporting training in koala treatment and care, and strengthening research into koala health outcomes”.
Will the change in status make a difference?
Reclassifying the Koala’s conservation status was long overdue, environment groups have said. But critics say it will accomplish little, as it does not compel the Australian government to take special action.
In 2020, WWF Australia, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Humane Society International collectively nominated the koala for upgrading its status to endangered, The New York Times reported.
⚠️ BREAKING: The Australian Government has uplisted koalas on the east coast from Vulnerable to Endangered.
This is a bittersweet outcome, but a critical step towards reversing the decline of koala populations. #KoalasForever
(Short thread)👇 pic.twitter.com/Dvy7EN68Xc
— WWF_Australia (@WWF_Australia) February 10, 2022
The government’s proposed recovery plan, however, is a step in the right direction. But activists argue that more needs to be done to prevent land clearing and to reverse the effects of climate change. “The Endangered status of the koala means they and their forest homes should be provided with greater protection under Australia’s national environmental law. Not only will this protect the iconic animal, but many other species living alongside them,” WWF Australia tweeted.
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