Social Media May Hinder Efforts to Save Australian Koala Habitats

Exaggerated and misleading information regarding the effect of Australian bushfires on koala habitats shines light on the impact of social media on the conservation of species.

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Since the end of October, bushfires have been devastating forests, grasslands, and plains all over the Australian landmass. Scientists speculate that after just two months of these bushfires spreading through the country, 1,000 koalas have died of severe burns and dehydration. As these wildfires continue to burn into the new year, it is predicted that up to 30 percent of koalas in the region have died. As of January, roughly half a billion animals in total—including koalas—have perished in the crisis. Despite the rapid decrease of the Australian koala population, however, social media has been sending exaggerated information regarding the koalas’ situation. Specifically, a Forbes article calling the koalas “functionally extinct” can be a threat on its own. Conservationists worry that little will be done to promote the koalas’ survival if this term is used to describe them.

According to National Geographic, a species that is functionally extinct “no longer has enough individual members to produce future generations or play a role in the ecosystem.” Another definition of functionally extinct regards a species that still occurs in the wild but can’t effectively reproduce. Scientists, however, are unsure if this term is accurate for the koalas’ situation. Since the bushfires only started recently, it is too early to determine whether the koalas are truly functionally extinct, because their future role in the ecosystem cannot yet be determined.

The International Union for Conservation approximates that 300,000 adult koalas still live in the wild, making their status vulnerable, meaning they are likely to become endangered species unless conditions improve, rather than functionally extinct. It is difficult to measure koala populations, however, because the animal has a wide range across eastern Australia and is human-shy.

The International Union for Conservation’s classification of the koalas demonstrates the need for conservation efforts, unlike the spread of the term “functionally extinct,” which indicates a point of no return for the species. An example of conservation includes limiting human interactions with koala habitats. The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia has predicted that koalas will become extinct in the wild by as early as 2050 if deforestation and other human threats are continuously present: land development, food degradation, drought, dog attacks, and chlamydia. To prevent this, the remaining eucalypt forests should be preserved, cleared forests should be regenerated, and isolated patches of habitat should be connected. Such actions are less likely to be taken if people hold the belief that nothing can be done to save the koalas due to their misleading “functionally extinct” status.

This confusion about the koalas’ status shows that social media can be a double-edged sword when publicizing information about environmental crises. Since photos, comments, and videos can lead people to form uninformed opinions about rescue methods and awareness, social media must be utilized carefully. Particularly moving was a video of a woman attempting to save a koala near fire by wrapping it in her shirt and feeding it water. The video was graphic, detailing the koala’s pain and its injuries. It invoked a deep emotional response in many; it is indeed difficult not to sympathize with the koalas in danger after watching the video. While this koala was put to rest due to the extent of its injuries, this act of salvation rejects the “functionally extinct” attitude spreading through social media and promotes conservation efforts instead. Additionally, the name of the Forbes article calling the koalas “functionally extinct” has been changed to “Fires May Have Killed Up To 1,000 Koalas, Fueling Concerns Over The Future Of The Species,” suggesting a questionable future for the koalas rather than one that is hopeless.

Social media can be a resourceful tool if used properly when describing the status of species. For example, tracking users to pinpoint regions that need more attention from conservationists can generate more conservation efforts. Photo-sharing websites, such as Flickr, can monitor potential hazards for animals. Social media can also be utilized to send out information about emergencies and natural disasters. Via an alert system of social media, experts can respond to the needs of injured animals, shelter, and care. Similarly, social media can be used to aid donation efforts and engagement in public policy.

Through these methods, social media can ultimately be used to help conservation efforts with koalas and other animals that may be in need of awareness before it’s too late.