February 12, 2022 - 8:29 am

 Australia has listed koalas as endangered species

Australia has listed the koala as an endangered species across most of its east coast, after a dramatic decline in numbers. The once-thriving marsupial has been ravaged by land clearing, bushfires, drought, disease and other threats. The federal government said the listing was for Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). It has been urged to do more to protect koalas from rapidly diminishing habitats and climate change. Scientists and academics have been warning that the iconic Australian mammal could become extinct unless the government immediately intervened to protect them and their habitat. Environment groups welcomed the decision although they said it should have happened much earlier.

According to fossil records, Koalas are one of Australia’s most loved and best-recognised icon. Koala species have inhabited parts of Australia for at least 25 million years, a WWF report states. But today, only one species remains — the Phascolarctos cinereus. They are found in the wild in the southeast and eastern sides of Australia — in coastal Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.  Since Europeans first settled in the region, the Koala population has faced widespread habitat loss, particularly due to agriculture and the construction of urban settlements. They survive on a strict diet of up to a kilogram of eucalyptus leaves every day. Due to the low nutritional value of these leaves, koalas tend to sleep for extended periods, often up to 18 hours a day, to conserve energy.

Australia’s Koala population has been on the road to extinction for over two decades now. The number of Koalas in NSW declined by between 33 per cent and 61 per cent since 2001, while in Queensland the Koala population decreased by at least half during the same period, according to a report by The Guardian. But despite several demands by animal rights groups and conservationists, the government has been accused of doing little to protect the species. Koalas were classified as “vulnerable” only in 2012. During the catastrophic 2019 bushfires in Australia, now known as the ‘Black Summer’, an estimated 60,000 koalas were impacted, with vast swathes of their habitat being blackened and rendered unliveable. More than 12 million acres of land were destroyed across New South Wales alone, CNN reported. Another major threat is the spread of chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease known to cause blindness and cysts in the koalas reproductive tract. In 2020, a parliamentary inquiry in NSW found that Koalas would be extinct in the state by 2050 unless the government took urgent action. Late last month, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that the government will be spending a record $35 million over the next four years towards the conservation and recovery of the koala population.

Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline. 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 government contends that listing koalas as endangered will highlight and help address threats, while conservation groups argue more has to be done to prevent their extinction. Scientists warn that climate change will also exacerbate bushfires and drought, and reduce the quality of the animal's eucalyptus leaf diet. There is still time to save this globally iconic species if the uplisting serves as a turning point in koala conservation. We need stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes.