Following severe population declines, made worse by this summer’s devastating bushfires, conservation and animal welfare groups have nominated the koala to be listed as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT.
The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia (WWF-Australia), the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and Humane Society International (HSI), have provided strong evidence to the federal government to support the nomination.
This includes a new report estimating Queensland’s koala population has crashed by at least 50% since 2001 because of deforestation, drought and the recent bushfires.
It also found:
• Forest fires in the Sunshine State killed a minimum of 672 koalas between August and December 2019,
• Koalas appear to be functionally extinct in central Queensland’s Mitchell Grass Downs bioregion, and
• It is estimated there has been an 80% decline across the Mulga Lands in the states south-west, previously considered to support the second highest proportion of koalas across all bioregions in Queensland.
A parallel analysis, released in early March and just updated, found the New South Wales koala population has also suffered a decline of between 33% and 61% since 2001, with a conservative estimate of 6382 koalas killed in the 2019-20 bushfires up to 13 February.
WWF-Australia, IFAW, and HSI commissioned consultancy Biolink, led by specialist koala ecologist Dr Stephen Phillips, to write the two reports.
They show a severe proportional reduction in the koala population size in Queensland and New South Wales, a key criterion to warrant an uplisting to endangered.
Koala populations in Queensland, NSW and the ACT were listed Vulnerable under the federal government’s EPBC Act in May 2012.
Since then, koalas have suffered relentless ongoing pressure. Land clearing has ramped up, increasing 13-fold in New South Wales since the government weakened native vegetation laws in 2016.
Climate change has supercharged droughts and heat waves, increasing koala deaths as their feed trees die-off and waterways where koalas drink dry out.
Koalas were already on the path to extinction in eastern Australia.
Then came the 2019-2020 bushfires when the koala became the unfortunate wildlife icon of the crisis both internationally and domestically.
Many important populations were directly in the path of the fires, and may not recover without serious and long term rescue efforts.
Experts fear the fires have accelerated the march towards many localised extinction events for koalas.
It is understood the federal government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee is already considering the conservation status of the koala.
Uplisting to endangered would increase protection for forests and woodlands where koalas live, mobilise funds and increase public support for the species.
Most importantly, listing koalas as an endangered species would enable politicians and public servants to use federal and state laws to stop trees being bulldozed and logged.
WWF-Australia conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch said: “Ecologists estimate koala numbers in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT have likely more than halved since 2000.
We call on the Australian environment minister to use federal environmental law to list them as ‘endangered’ in eastern states to increase legal protections for forests and woodlands where koalas live.”
IFAW Wildlife Campaigner Josey Sharrad said: “Koalas were already living on a knife edge and these fires have left them fighting for their very survival. They need a helping hand and some breathing space to recover. We owe them that at least.”
HSI Senior Campaign Manager Alexia Wellbelove said: “The bushfires have brought the plight of koalas into sharp focus. We hope that by nominating the koala for endangered status, governments will use this opportunity to tackle the many threats facing them to stop any further decline”.
A review of the conservation status of koalas in QLD
Koala conservation status in NSW