Koalas declared 'endangered' in eastern Australia

The population in New South Wales state has dropped by as much as 61 per cent since 2001

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Koalas were officially declared endangered in eastern Australia on Friday, as they fall prey to disease, lost habitat and other threats.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley changed their conservation status across the country’s east coast — in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory — on a recommendation from the government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

The marsupials had earlier been listed as a vulnerable species.

Many koalas in Australia suffer from chlamydia. Populations in New South Wales have fallen by between 33 and 61 per cent since 2001. In 2020, a parliamentary inquiry warned the species might become extinct before 2050 without urgent intervention.

The number of koalas in Queensland has fallen by half since 2001, as a result of drought, fires and deforestation. Some are also killed by dogs and run over on roads.

“Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline,” said Stuart Blanch, a conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund-Australia.

“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,” he said.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 Koalas left in the wild — possibly as few as 43,000.

Summer bushfires in 2019-20 — known as the Black Summer fires — killed at least 6,400 of the animals, as rescuers worked desperately to save them and treat their injuries.

“There have been many pressures on the koala. The Black Summer fires, of course, was a tipping point. But we know the koala is vulnerable to climate change and to disease,” Ms Ley said.

She said the government was trying to protect the koala population through vaccines to prevent and treat chlamydia, the use of drones to study them and the restoration of their habitat.

The government says listing koalas as endangered will highlight and help address the threats facing them, while conservation groups argue that more has to be done to prevent their extinction.

The Australian Koala Foundation has called for legislation to protect the animals and curb land clearing and mining projects that are wrecking their habitats. It says koalas also are in danger across Victoria and South Australia.

Deborah Tabart, chair of the foundation, said the designation of koalas as endangered was “nothing but a token gesture”.

“Behind all the photo opportunities and political rhetoric, they [the federal government] continue to approve the destruction of koala habitat,” Ms Tabart said.

Updated: February 11, 2022, 3:38 PM