The ‘biggest fight for a species ever’, as the iconic koala drifts towards extinction

A recent report released by the WWF has estimated that more than 60,000 koalas were killed, injured or displaced in the Australian bushfires of 2019-2020, a huge blow for a species already on the brink of extinction.

8,000 koalas were estimated to have perished in the state of New South Wales (NSW) alone, according to a study conducted by The School of Business and Tourism, Southern Cross University, resulting in some of their last remaining populations becoming extinct. Many other species of wildlife perished and 33 people also died. Ranked as the worst bushfire season on record, Australia is still trying to recover, many months on.

Lewis – A victim of the fires
Image source: Koala Hospital Port Macquarie (2019), Facebook.

The WWF is now fighting for the survival of one of Australia’s most iconic marsupials and has set up what they describe as ‘our biggest fight for a species ever’ with the koalas forever appeal. It aims to double koala numbers across eastern Australia by 2050. The forests of Eastern Australia are considered a global biodiversity hotspot supporting the lives of many native plant and animal species. Nearly half of the original forested area has been lost to the fires having a direct impact on koala livelihoods.

It was announced in January that Australia is to start using drones to tally up the number of koalas remaining in the wild. The AUS$18m (£10m) project aims to understand the current numbers so that conservation efforts can be made to protect the species from the many threats that they face, including habitat destruction, climate change and disease. The Australian Koala Foundation believes there could be fewer than 80,000 remaining in the wild today – and possibly as few as 43,000. The drones will also be used to disperse eucalyptus tree seeds in a desperate attempt to provide food and shelter for the fragile species.

“If this rate of decline continues then yes, the koala is at risk of extinction”

The Australian Koala Foundation

Lewis hit the headlines last year after being rescued from the wildfire, pictured in bandages. He was sadly euthanised after his injuries were too severe. However, amongst the devastation, a story of hope has emerged from Port Macquarie Animal Hospital in NSW. A koala who was named LINR Anwen, has now been released back into the wild. Her claws and fur took some time to grow back, but she is now doing well. Charities and volunteers have worked tirelessly to help as many animals as they possibly can.

Another new report from the WWF released in January, names eastern Australia among 24 global deforestation ‘fronts’ – areas that have significant a concentration of deforestation hotspots. The only developed nation on the list. The report states that there is an increasing frequency and intensity of fires due to anthropogenic (human induced) climate change. The 2019-20 summer bushfires burned 7.3Mha of the Eastern Australia forests, almost all in the state of NSW.

Image source: Insurancejournal.com (2020)

Researchers at the World Weather Attribution published the first assessment quantifying the role of climate change in the recent Australian bushfires, claiming that global warming boosted the risk of the hot, dry weather that’s likely to cause bushfires by at least 30%. The recent bushfires could serve as a foretaste of the kinds of climate events that could become the new normal, unless greenhouse gas emissions are rapidly curbed. Even then, climate change impacts are not likely to change on any conceivable timescale.

With humanity seemingly unprepared, it is likely that the impacts of climate change will continue to have an effect on many wildlife species, including koala populations, for decades to come.

To make a donation and help conserve koalas, follow the link to the koalas forever appeal.

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