Australia has lost close to one-third of its koalas over the past 3 years, a dramatic drop in the population of one of the most beloved species on the continent.
According to figures compiled by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), the koala population has fallen from about 82,000 in 2018 to less than 58,000 now. The drop has been especially dramatic in New South Wales, where an estimated 41 percent of the marsupials have disappeared.
Officials blame the huge bushfires of 2019 and 2020 as a major cause for the decline, but the AKF says other factors have played a significant role as well.
“The terrible bushfires of 2019-2020 of course contributed to this outcome, however, they are certainly not the only reason we are seeing koala populations on the decline,” AKF chair Deborah Tabart said in a statement. “We have witnessed a drastic decrease in the inland population because of drought, heatwaves, and lack of water for koalas to drink.”
Tabart said the conditions have led to some drastic sights across the country.
“I have seen some landscapes that look like the moon, with dead and dying trees everywhere,” she said.
The bushfires burned for several months and became known as the Black Summer of 2019-2020. A staggering 46 million acres burned, nearly 10,000 buildings were destroyed in the blazes, and 474 deaths were recorded. The majority of the fires took out land where koalas and other animals live.
The fires had been a major story at the time, but it was quickly pushed to the background when the coronavirus arrived and grabbed the majority of international attention.
A National Decline
As tragic as the fires were, Tabart noted that koala populations declined in every region across the continent, including areas where the fires did not occur.
Koalas are now extinct in 47 of the 151 electorates — Australia’s version of congressional districts — and only one has more than 5,000 koalas remaining. Some regions have less than 10 koalas remaining, the AKF said.
“Each and every federal politician in these electorates should now be on notice to protect not only the koalas in their electorate but the habitat that remains,” Tabart said. “The good news is that in many cases, there is good habitat left. Now is the time to get into action and get them full again. That is what koala recovery looks like.”
The government in June called for public comment on a recovery plan from the fires and drought, and whether the koala species status should be elevated from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” That comment period ends Friday.
Saving The Koalas
Tabart noted that, while nothing can be done about things like drought, elected officials do have the power to take other steps to protect koalas, other animals, and the natural habitat of the country.
“Land clearing is lethal to koala populations. Over the past few years, we have seen huge land clearance particularly across NSW and South East Queensland, for farming, housing development, and mining,” Tabart said. “We know that offsets don’t work, and we also know that displaced koalas die.”
To the AKF, there is only one solution:
“Urgent action to stop land clearing in prime koala habitat is required if we are to save our beloved national animal from peril,” Tabart said. “We need a Koala Protection Act now which can and will do exactly that. Why won’t our political leaders just sign that into being?”