Experts and environmentalists are warning that koalas across much of Australia are on the brink of extinction. Increasing urbanisation, tree clearing and climate change are threatening the marsupials. Scientists are even talking about a ‘tragedy’, writes Barbara Barkhausen in Sydney.
One photo stands out as the symbol of the koala crisis: a koala clinging to a truck, searching for a eucalyptus tree.
In eastern Australia in particular, huge swathes of forests have been cleared and koala numbers have dropped drastically. In the state of Queensland they have declined by 53 per cent, while in the state of New South Wales they have fallen by 26 per cent.
Tree clearing destroying bushland
One study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) looks at the developments over the past 20 years and put together a projection for the two decades to come.
Another WWF analysis shows that deforestation in southeast Queensland may have killed 179 koalas in just two years. Between mid-2013 and mid-2015, over 44 square kilometres of bushland in the region was cleared after restrictions on tree clearing were relaxed.
“Bulldoze their trees and you kiss the koalas goodbye – they’re forced to look for new homes and are then killed by cars or dogs,” WWF scientist Martin Taylor said.
Darryl Jones, an ecologist at Griffith University, echoed Taylor’s concerns, saying that koalas are facing “serious problems” especially along the forested coastal region where a massive urban development is underway.
Wildlife hospitals are powerless
2,000 koalas had to be treated for bone fractures over the past 13 years in wildlife hospitals in southeast Queensland, according to WWF. Most of them were injured in vehicle collisions or dog attacks. Only 2 per cent survived.
Just this April, the Koala Hospital Port Macquarie in New South Wales wrote on its Facebook page: “The developers are back removing the koala food trees at Beach Street Bonny Hills”.
It went on to say that the city council and the hospital itself are powerless to do anything, complaining that the environment office is not answering their phones.
“This is just criminal – especially when koalas are a threatened species! A koala was seen sitting on the pile of woodchip at this site last week – ‘where have the trees gone?’.”
Green corridors are needed
In addition to the loss of habitats and the risk of dog attacks or car accidents, a chlamydia epidemic is threatening to wipe out Australia’s koalas. The infection can result in blindness, sterility and death.
And today’s koala numbers are already only a fraction of the original population. At the turn of the 20th century, koalas were hunted down for their fur, which was then exported to the UK and the US. This practice killed millions of koalas until it was halted in the 1930s.
Protecting koala habitats is crucial if their extinction in the eastern part of the country is to be prevented, said Jones. Green corridors – safe crossings and passageways – will also have to be built to allow the animals to safely cross roads.
“I think it’s absolutely possible for humans and koalas to live together successfully,” Jones insisted. It just needs the right planning.