Australia on Friday officially classified koalas on much of its eastern seaboard as “endangered,” with the marsupials bearing the brunt of bushfires, land clearing, drought and disease.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley has listed these koala populations as “at risk” to give them a higher level of protection in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland.
Conservationists say the koala population has collapsed across much of eastern Australia over the past two decades and the animal is on the brink of extinction in those regions. While they welcomed the Minister’s announcement, they also condemned the authorities’ failure to protect the species so far.
The koala, a worldwide symbol of Australia’s unique ecosystem, had been classified as “vulnerable” on the east coast a decade ago.
“We are taking unprecedented measures to protect the koala,” the minister assured, highlighting the government’s recent promise to spend 50 million Australian dollars (31 million euros) to protect and restore koala habitats.
Koalas have gone from being “vulnerable” to endangered in the space of a decade. This is a decline of shocking rapidity,” lamented Stuart Blanch, conservation specialist at WWF-Australia.
“Today’s decision is welcome but it is not going to stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it is accompanied by stricter laws and incentives for landowners to protect their forest habitat,” he added.
The Scientific Committee for Endangered Species, an independent government agency, estimated that the koala population had increased from 185,000 in 2001 to 92,000 in 2021.
– “National Icon” –
Alexia Wellbelove of the Humane Society International says East Coast koalas could be extinct by 2050 if nothing is done.
“We can’t afford any more clearing,” she says.
Australian Conservation Foundation research shows the federal government has approved the clearing of more than 25,000 hectares of koala habitat since the species was declared vulnerable.
“Australia’s environmental laws are so ineffective that they have failed to stem the ongoing destruction of koala habitat in Queensland and New South Wales for the past decade that the species is supposed to be protected,” said Basha Stasak, a foundation official.
“We need to stop allowing their habitats to be razed for mining, real estate or agricultural projects and industrial logging,” she added.
Before the devastating fires of 2019-2020, koalas were already threatened by deforestation, drought, disease, collisions with cars and dog attacks, explained Josey Sharrad, an official of the International Fund for Animal Protection.
“We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we risk losing a national icon,” she lamented.
She said: “the bushfires were the final straw. This should be a wake-up call for Australia and the government to act much more quickly to protect critical habitats from development and clearing and to seriously address the effects of climate change”.