Koalas Now Endangered In Large Swath Of Australia, Government Says

Koalas Now Endangered In Large Swath Of Australia, Government Says

SYDNEY — The Australian government said Friday it would list the country’s iconic koalas as endangered in several states and territories amid plummeting populations linked to climate change and habitat loss.

The Australian environment minister, Sussan Ley, said a scientific committee convened to monitor threatened species had recommended koalas for the worrisome listing about two years after the country’s catastrophic “black summer” bushfires, which scorched more than 60 million acres. By some estimates, up to 60,000 koalas were killed or injured in the blazes, prompting environmental groups to nominate the species for the endangered listing.

The listing applies to the states of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.

But conservationists say koalas — first listed as vulnerable in 2012 — were under severe threat long before the bushfires. Severe drought and fires exacerbated by climate change, along with a loss in habitat, have contributed to their demise, and studies released in 2020 found koala populations had fallen by at least 50% in the state of Queensland since 2001 and between 33% and 61% in New South Wales during the same period.

“The new listing highlights the challenges the species is facing,” Ley said in a statement Friday, pointing to government plans to spend 50 million Australian dollars ($35.7 million USD) to better protect them.

“The impact of prolonged drought, followed by the black summer bushfires, and the cumulative impacts of disease, urbanization and habitat loss over the past twenty years have led to the advice,” she said.

The designation will provide some additional protection for koalas, namely more assessment requirements for development projects. But it doesn’t mandate any extra rules to protect their habitat, The Sydney Morning Herald noted.

Ley said a national plan to help protect them would be sent to states that are home to the endangered creatures, but the plan’s size has drawn criticism as a mere drop in the ocean, particularly as land-clearing efforts expand and the Australian government stands firmly by fossil fuel production.

Scientists, environmentalists and lawmakers have been ringing warning bells about koala populations for years. In 2020, a government-backed inquiry said koalas were in danger of going locally extinct in the state of New South Wales — home to Sydney — by 2050 without urgent action to protect their habitat.

Environmental groups welcomed the bittersweet news on Friday, saying the upgraded listing means koalas “and their forest homes should be provided with greater protection.”

“Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline,” Stuart Blanch, a conservation scientist with the Australian branch of the WWF, said in a statement. “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.”

The International Fund for Animal Welfare said the decision was a double-edged sword.

“We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we are at risk of losing a national icon,” Rebecca Keeble, the group’s regional director for Oceania, said in a statement. “It is a dark day for our nation. If we can’t protect an iconic species endemic to Australia, what chance do lesser known but no less important species have?”

The koala’s plight is only the latest major environmental issue to arise in Australia. The government has drawn fierce scrutiny over its efforts to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which has been hit repeatedly by coral bleaching linked to climate change. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country planned to throw $700 million at that problem last month, but scientists said the money will do little to save the reef when the government is spending billions more to subsidize coal and gas production.

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.