The koala is now officially an endangered species, according to the Australian government. This is because deforestation, wildfires and diseases have reduced the number of koalas by 30 percent since 2018. “They are animals that can literally die from the stress.”
It is alarm stage red for the koala. The Australian government has now officially designated the marsupial as an endangered species in the states of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. However, that’s not too early. Because although the number of estimates varies widely, there is no doubt that the number of koalas is declining rapidly.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley speaks of 180,000 remaining koalas, while the Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are only between 30,000 and 60,000 animals. According to this organization, koalas have fallen by as much as 30 percent since 2018.
Koalas are found in the wild only in Australia. The name is said to be derived from an extinct native language and would mean something like ‘don’t drink’. A koala mainly gets its moisture from drops of moisture from the trees and the many eucalypti leaves that they consume. But agriculture, mining and housing projects are rapidly deforesting their cherished eucalyptus forests or crisscrossing them with new highways. The fact that koalas have been on the list of vulnerable animal species since 2012 does little to change that.
“On the contrary”, says Koen Stuyck of WWF Belgium. “In 2016, the Australian government weakened the protection of much native vegetation in the state of New South Wales, causing further deforestation. In that area, the number of koalas has fallen by as much as 41 percent since 2018.” Deforestation has increasingly driven koalas into urban areas, where they are sometimes hit or attacked by dogs.
Climate change is also not helping the koalas. Due to the increasingly drier summers and heatwaves, the eucalyptus leaves fall from the trees before koalas can extract food or moisture from them. However, the main cause for the rapid decline in the number of koalas is mainly the severe forest fires that ravaged Australia in 2019 and 2020. The World Wildlife Fund calculated that those wildfires alone are believed to have killed, injured, or lost some 60,000 koalas. Although the koalas are not known as big drinkers, a video of a dehydrated koala emptying a cyclist’s drinking bottle went around the world during those forest fires.
Due to the forest fires, deforestation and loss of their habitat, many koalas are under chronic stress. And let the koala be an animal that is very sensitive to stress. “Due to noise or changes in their environment, they quickly become restless,” says koala caretaker Isabel Bracke of Zoo Antwerp and Planckendael. For example, the caretakers recently had to transfer the koalas from Planckendael to the Zoo because the marsupials experienced significant weight fluctuations during renovations in Planckendael. “When they are under a lot of stress, they flap their ears or get hiccups. If you do not intervene in time, they can go into overdrive that certain bodily functions are switched off. They are animals that can literally die from the stress.” That stress also makes them more susceptible to illness. It is estimated that half of koalas suffer from chlamydia in some areas, which can lead to blindness or infertility.
At the end of last month, the Australian government pledged 31 million euros to protect koalas. A recovery plan is also being drawn up, which means that ministers are now legally bound to consider the impact on koalas when making policy decisions. But more will be needed to prevent the koala from becoming extinct in 30 years. “Australia must stop investing in coal and restore the habitat of the koalas,” Stuyck said. The WWF itself is also working on this by using drones to scatter thousands of eucalyptus seeds a day in areas burned down by the forest fires.