The koala is an Australian icon. That furry grey bear-like, but definitely not a bear, creature that spends the majority of its time munching on eucalyptus leaves and snoozing for up to 18 hours a day, has officially been classified as endangered on the east coast by the Australian Government.
It’s a shocking development, but ironically, and perhaps even surprisingly, a somewhat positive one. Let’s call it bittersweet.
After almost being wiped out by the koala pelt trade which saw more than 8 million koalas killed between 1888 and 1927, the koala has faced numerous threats to its existence and continues to do so, with roadside accidents, climate change, habitat destruction and fragmentation, drought, dog attacks and disease among them.
Since 2001, Queensland’s koala population has dropped by a staggering 50%, with New South Wales koalas suffering a 62% decline over the same period.
These are terrible statistics.
“Koalas have gone from nolisting to Vulnerable to Endangered within a decade. That’s a shockingly fast decline,” says Dr Stuart Blanch, a WWF-Australia Conservation scientist.
If this can happen to an animal so synonymous with Australia and so in the public eye, it doesn’t fare well for our lesser-known animals, many of which are struggling through similar situations.
The koala is our greatest ambassador (sorry, Nicole) with their likeness appearing on anything from keychains to t-shirts for locals and travellers alike. And when governments want to impress foreign political leaders, they’re often photographed alongside the famous mammal. Let’s face it, the koala is synonymous with Australia. But in recent years, seeing one in the wild in Queensland and New South Wales has become increasingly rare.
So, how could the listing of koalas as an Endangered species be anything but catastrophically terrible? An indication of their imminent disappearance?
The koala is endangered, whether listed that way or not. Their numbers are dwindling and mass habitat destruction continues providing an on-going threat to their existence. As does the increase in severe weather events caused by climate change. You only need to look at the horrific fires of 2019-20 to see the impact climate change has on our furry grey friends.
By officially classifying the koala as Endangered, the protection of koalas becomes a legal obligation rather than simply a moral one.
The Endangered status of the koala means that 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.
The decision to uplist the koala to Endangered comes after a joint submission by WWF-Australia, IFAW-Australia and HSI-Australia was put forward to Federal Minister for the Environment, urging her to act on the science and help protect our national icon.
More than 23,000 Australians supported this call, signing WWF-Australia’s petition to the Australian Government.
According to IFAW-Australia Campaign Manager Josey Sharrad, “We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we are at risk of losing a national icon. If we can’t protect an iconic species endemic to Australia, what chance do lesser-known but no less important species have?”
Australia has the worst mammal extinction rate of anywhere in the world and the more land we protect and the more time and energy we put into action protecting the species that call that land their home, the greater the chance we have of reversing the devastating impact we’ve had on our native animals thus far.
No one wants to see a world without koalas, we’ve seen enough species go the way of the Tasmanian tiger, and by recognising the status of our endangered and at-risk wildlife, we can create global awareness and meaningful legal action. It is the first step to ensuring a future for the koala and all the other animals that share its bushy home.
“The uplisting 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,” says Dr Blanch.
So, it’s a bittersweet turn of events, but one that we hope can pave the way toward doubling our koala population on the east coast by 2050.
Thank you to everyone who voiced their concern for koalas and signed the petition. We couldn’t have done it with you. But this is just the beginning. Now that the east coast koala is listed as Endangered the real work begins to get them off that list, but only when they are well and truly ready.
WWF-Australia is working to ensure a safe future for koalas. We need to ensure that koala habitats along the east coast are protected so that the species can thrive. Through our mission to Regenerate Australia, we’re rehabilitating and restoring wildlife and habitats that will future-proof Australia against climate disasters.
To learn more about Regenerate Australia and get involved, click here and let’s continue working together to keep our koalas in their trees and in our future.