Koalas Declared Functionally Extinct in Australia

In recent news, koalas have been declared functionally extinct, mainly due to habitat destruction as well as limited political intervention. Efforts are being made to stop their decline, yet such efforts may prove futile if habitat destruction isn’t stopped.

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The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) released a statement on May 10, 2019 stating that only around 80,000 koalas are now believed to remain in their original habitats. AKF Chairwoman Deborah Tabart said that “the remaining koalas represent approximately one percent of the 8 million koalas that were shot for fur and sent to London between 1890 and 1927.” Out of the 128 federally recognized electorates in Australia (which have been monitored since 2010), 41 contain no koalas whatsoever. In dozens of other districts, only small numbers of koalas remain. If the koala population continues to fall at current rates, koalas will no longer be able to reproduce at rates high enough for future generations to thrive. This dangerous population decline has caused koalas to be declared functionally extinct, meaning that they are no longer a viable species.

Widespread deforestation and subsequent habitat loss has severely affected koala populations, as they can no longer survive in the places they once thrived in. Koalas tend to live in eucalyptus trees and spend much of their time in between forks in the trees’ branches. Clearing such eucalyptus trees for human settlement places large amounts of stress on these animals and greatly increases competition between individual koalas for ever-shrinking pockets of land. This habitat loss has other, less obvious effects: common diseases that affect koalas include conjunctivitis, pneumonia, urinary and reproductive tract infections, and more. These infections may lead to female infertility, another cause of their functional extinction. Such urinary and reproductive tract infections come about during times of stress, something that is a result of deforestation. In areas that do not contain enough habitat to sustain a population of koalas, these diseases are more likely to spread.

Though all of the aforementioned issues are very much real problems that pose a threat to koalas, some researchers disagree with the designation of koalas as functionally extinct. Biologist Christine Adams-Hosking of the University of Queensland states that “there is no danger of koalas going extinct in Australia overall. But at the rate of habitat clearing that is going on, we are going to see increased local population extinctions.” Nonetheless, it is certainly possible for koalas to become extinct due to their inability to produce viable offspring. These local population extinctions are essentially precursors to the total extinction of the koala in Australia.

The alarming frequency of local population extinctions has attracted wildlife support groups looking to help the koala and has led to a rise in local habitat protection efforts. These groups aim to educate the public about the sustenance of koala populations, and the importance of taking steps to protect existing koalas. Proposed solutions include planting more eucalyptus trees, protecting known koala habitats, and encouraging more environmentally-friendly lifestyles. People around the world who have received the news of the koala’s habitat loss and have the desire to help out may donate to and fund AKF. It is also possible to “virtually adopt” a koala and take care of necessary veterinary fees, rehabilitation programs, enclosure maintenance, and more. It is extremely important to help protect and support these precious creatures, and supporting efforts to help conserve their habitats may well have a beneficial impact on their survival.

While efforts such as these do have an advantageous impact on koala populations, Tabart maintains that Australian politicians should be playing a role in preserving these animals. The Bald Eagle Act is a U.S. federal statute that protects two species of eagles. It was a successful attempt at protecting the American icon due to political backing and a unanimous agreement on the importance of ensuring that the eagle did not go extinct. In the last six years, the Australian government has not written anything to protect the koala since a Senate inquiry that exposed the fact that the koala was in danger. A Koala Recovery Plan was supposed to have been passed in 2014, yet it has not even been written. AKF has proposed a Koala Protection Act, modelled after the Bald Eagle Act, that has not been set into place. The purpose of the act is to see that koalas receive the highest level of protection of any animal species in Australia. The Bald Eagle Act helped the 487 nesting pairs in 1963 increase to at least 9,789 nesting pairs in 2007. Tabart demands that koalas be afforded the same respect and attention the eagles were given.

Koalas have been an extremely important part of Australian culture, as they played a large role in Aboriginal tradition and historical myths and legends. Even today, koalas and their habitat play a large role in helping the overall environment by resisting world climate change. In fact, the eucalyptus trees that are essential to koala survival are one of the most important species in the world in storing carbon. Yet this importance is not being reflected in conscious decisions being made to destroy koala habitats by industrialization, deforestation, and more. Habitat loss is one of the factors that have led to the functional extinction of koalas, something that may result in their total extinction if proper measures are not taken. The Australian Koala Foundation has proposed countless plans and acts that will help koalas, yet they have not had a lasting impact due to the inability of Australian political leaders to dedicate efforts into koala depopulation. The United States serves as an example that AKF wishes to follow in preserving animal populations and habitat restoration, but at the moment, AKF does not see the necessary political intervention happening in the near future. At the end of AKF’s statement regarding koala depopulation, Chairwoman Tabart stated that “zoos are not the answer. Saving [the koala’s] habitat is.”