On Friday, February 11, 2022, the Australian government declared the koala an endangered species in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). The marsupial – an emblematic animal for this country’s unique wildlife – is threatened by a variety of factors, including droughts, bush fires, habitat loss through land clearing, and disease.
Scientists warn that, by exacerbating bush fires and droughts, climate change will significantly reduce the quality of the koala’s eucalyptus leaf diet, pushing it increasingly closer to extinction.
The koala was listed as “vulnerable” in 2012, but it was not until the 2019 massive bush fires that extended over millions of acres in Australia, destroying the animal’s habitats, that its plight gained the global attention it deserves.
A report from the World Wildlife Fund Australia estimated that 60,000 koalas had been “killed, injured, or affected in some way” by these devastating fires. In response to this report, the Australian government allocated 18 million dollars (AUD) for restoring habitats and investing in koala health research.
While the exact number of surviving koalas is difficult to estimate, conservationists believe that the koala populations in states such as Queensland and New South Wales has declined by over 50 percent since 2001.
“Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline,” said Stuart Blanch, a conservation scientist at WWF Australia. “Today’s decision is welcome, but it won’t stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it’s accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes.”
According to Deborah Tabart, chairwoman of the Australian Koala Foundation, the animal’s new status “doesn’t mean anything.” The government “may be offering our koalas a nice new word, but behind all the photo opportunities and political rhetoric they continue to approve the destruction of the koala habitat. If the clearing of the koala habitat continues, a further status change is imminent – from endangered to extinct,” she warned.
However, even though reclassification from vulnerable to endangered does not bind the Australian government to take any special action, they separately announced that they will adopt a recovery plan for the koala issued by Australia’s environmental department, and provide 50 million Australian dollars ($35.7 million) over four years to koala recovery and conservation efforts.
“Our $50 million investment will enhance the protection of koalas by restoring koala habitat, improving our understanding of koala populations, supporting training in koala treatment and care, and strengthening research into koala health outcomes,” Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “Koalas are one of Australia’s most loved and best recognized icons, both here at home and across the world, and we are committed to protecting them for generations to come.”