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Koalas are not ‘functionally extinct’ but they are in danger

27 November 2019
Academics reject claims that koalas are close to extinction
Reports claiming koalas are in demise went viral on Twitter this week, particularly after the American journalist Dan Rather shared it with his followers. Experts say the reports may lead to apathy around conservation.

Functionally Extinct

This week, international news outlets reported claims from the Australian Koala Foundation that the marsupial is “functionally extinct.”

Dr Valentina Mella, a koala conservationist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the claims could be dangerous to conservation efforts.

“The term 'functionally extinct' refers to species whose reduced populations are no longer viable,” said Dr Mella, said. “While I understand that the motive is to emphasise the threats to koalas, the implication of declaring koalas as functionally extinct is that there is no value in koala conservation. This can have dangerous consequences. Focus should be shifted to the valuable research-based management strategies that can be applied to enhance koala conservation, which could address the threats that have recently been highlighted."

Associate Professor Mathew Crowther, a wildlife ecologist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the term “functionally extinct” is misleading, with many meanings.

“It can be used to say that the species is too low in numbers to make a contribution to the ecosystem, or it is too low to recover in numbers. Both are untrue for koalas,” he said. “The Australian Koala Foundation has recently used it to say that genetic diversity is too low for koalas to survive into the future. This is also untrue.

“Koalas are in decline in many populations and the recent bushfires do not help. However, some populations are doing well and even increasing in size. Hence it is alarmist and adds nothing to the conversation to say koalas are ‘functionally extinct’.”

 

Estimating koala populations

The best scientific evidence that is currently available puts the koala population in Australia at around 330,000 animals, said Associate Professor David Phalen, in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science. “Koala populations in Victoria and South Australia are stable, increasing or, in some areas, overabundant,” Associate Professor Phalen said. “Koalas in Queensland and NSW are threatened.”

Risks to koalas include habitat loss, motor vehicle strikes, dog attacks, disease and the impact of climate change. 

Koalas and climate change

Associate Professor Phalen said climate change is impacting koalas by causing extreme heat events, drought, and hotter and more frequent fires. “This has resulted in range reduction particularly in the western part of their range in NSW and Queensland,” he said.

“Dramatic declines have also occurred in local populations where urban development has destroyed their habitat. Recent and ongoing fires will have major local impacts on some important koala populations. However, these fires have damaged a relatively small part of their habitat across NSW and Queensland.  It is also important to recognise that while certain populations of koalas in NSW and Queensland are under threat, not all are, and some are thriving.”

photo of Dr Valentina Mella holding a koala in a blanket

Conserving koalas: Dr Valentina Mella 

Protecting koalas

Much is being done by the NSW Government, local councils, not-for-profit organisations, scientists and private landholders to protect koalas in NSW and Queensland to prevent further decline and increase their numbers where possible. 

“Based on many studies we know that koalas, when given a chance, are resilient and can recover from natural disasters,” Associate Professor Phalen said. “We should be very concerned about the human-driven factors that are causing koala decline. We also need to think about the decline and extinction of many other less charismatic animal and plant species and we should address these factors aggressively. It is, however, best to approach these issues using all of the best available information and not make overarching statements that misrepresent complex issues.”

Elissa Blake

Assistant Media Adviser (Science)

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