By Dr Stuart Blanch
Senior Manager, Towards Two Billion Trees, WWF-Australia
“Sad, mad and glad,” I said in response to the presenter’s question about how I felt now that koalas on Australia’s east coast were legally listed as endangered under federal environmental law.
It was the morning of 11 February during a radio interview when news broke that Australia’s Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley announced the decision to ‘uplist’ koalas in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT from Vulnerable to Endangered.
I had been working towards this goal for three years to give koalas the additional legal protection and funding they need.
Well before the terrible 2019-20 bushfires, WWF-Australia and other conservation and animal welfare organisations started planning to nominate the east coast population of koalas as endangered.
In recent months, WWF enabled more than 23,000 supporters to send an email to the Prime Minister and Environment Minister asking them to uplist east coast koalas to endangered.
Sad, mad, glad. I was sad that koalas were disappearing so fast that their numbers had halved in just 20 years, satisfying the legal threshold for declaration as endangered. Mad that we continue to relentlessly push this amazing iconic Aussie marsupial towards extinction. And glad – very glad – that the minister had acted on the science to give koalas more legal protection.
Within a decade, the east coast koala population had gone from no-listing to Vulnerable to Endangered.
How could this be, I asked?
Once the announcement was made on 11 February, I realised that we could now stop for a few hours and think about what it meant. So between the media interviews and calls with koala experts and campaigners, I thought about those 2019-20 fires. I thought about forests in flames. And about the koalas and all the other animals, caught up in the catastrophe.
I also thought about the shocking drought that lasted for years and sucked the water and life out of the forests and farms where koalas tried to hold on. And I thought about the bulldozing and logging of their homes, leaving koalas maimed or without their favourite tree homes. And I remembered the wildlife carers, the passionate community environment groups, all those committed government conservation staff, the koala-loving landholders, and the Indigenous Elders, who had all invested so much of their lives and money to help save koalas and their forests.
11 February was a day of deep emotion, of shock, and of relief that a grim but necessary decision had been made.
At the end of a day of media interviews, and wondering what the listing really meant, a journalist asked the question I struggle to answer simply.
“Will the Endangered listing save them from extinction?”
I stopped, stuck for words.
I remembered the fires, droughts, bulldozers and logging. And Chlamydia, dog attacks and car collisions.
But then I also remembered how tough koalas are. Also, the resilience of eucalypt forests. And I remembered how many people are working to save koalas and their forests.
“Yes,” I replied, “we can, and I think we can even double the population by 2050 if we’re serious about addressing all the threats.”
This means completing the transition from being a deforestation front to a reforestation nation and ensuring Australia becomes a global leader for keeping the Paris 1.5oC target alive.
WWF-Australia has committed to doing so through our Koalas Forever program, thanks to our supporters’ generosity. The NSW Government has also committed to doubling its koala population.
So, a week on from the announcement, with my WWF colleagues and many others, I’m turning my mind to what needs to happen to halt and reverse the koala population decline and – one day – get them off the Endangered list. I hope you can keep supporting this critical work.
Here are some ways you can help koalas: