• Fires killed 5,000-10,000 koalas – up to one-third of the wild population.
  • Conservationists want koalas declared endangered on an emergency basis.
  • One million plant and animal species worldwide face extinction.

Koalas have been listed as a vulnerable species in parts of Australia since 2012, but they may be facing extinction in the state of New South Wales (NSW) in the wake of the recent wildfires.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the fires killed around 5,000 koalas in NSW. The animals were already “living on the brink”, IFAW says, due to a combination of environmental pressures.

Loss of habit through land clearance, disease, dog attacks and road deaths have all contributed to a decline in their numbers.

According to IFAW, there is: “an immediate, ongoing and significant threat of extinction to the NSW koala population, making it eligible for a provisional listing as endangered on an emergency basis under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.”

IFAW is calling on the state government to take urgent action, warning that the koala population has declined by 66% over the last three generations, and that the fire-related death toll is likely to be higher than the 5,000 estimate.

Australian broadcaster ABC quoted a spokesperson from the WWF saying as many as 10,000 may have been killed, out of a total population of approximately 36,000.

Not a bear

The koala is often mistakenly referred to as the koala bear. Bears are mammals and are part of the genus Ursus. Koalas are marsupials, a subclass of mammals, and in the Phascolarctidae genus, of which they are the only member. Their closest relative is the wombat, a fellow marsupial.

An injured koala sits at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, at the Wildlife Emergency Response Centre in Parndana, Kangaroo Island, Australia January 19, 2020.
An injured koala at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, Australia.
Image: REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy

Koalas depend on eucalyptus trees for their survival and thrive only in areas where at least two different species of eucalyptus are present.

The wildfires that raged from late 2019 to early 2020 burnt an area of land the size of England and Wales. Countless trees were destroyed, along with thousands of homes, hundreds of thousands of cattle and sheep, and hundreds of millions of wild animals.

Figure 1. The fire footprint of the 2019‐2020 fire events, inclusive of 1st October 2019 to 10th January 2020 (in red dash) and the fire footprint inclusive of 1st October 2019 to 10th December 2019 only, the  period covered in the initial report (in orange).
The majority of ARKS (Areas of Regional Koala Significance) were heavily affected by the bushfires of 2019-2020.
Image: International Fund for Animal Welfare

“Koalas were already living on the brink before these fires, with populations declining in many areas due to excessive land clearing, disease and roadkill and local extinctions already known to have occurred. This disaster and the ongoing nature of the threats could push koalas over the edge,” said Josey Sharrad of IFAW.

Unprecedented species loss

Around the world, an estimated 1 million species of plants and animals are facing the threat of extinction. That’s far more than at any other time in human history.

“The health of ecosystems on which we and all other species depend is deteriorating more rapidly than ever,” according to Robert Watson, Chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide.”

The koala’s precarious situation is not helped by its slow reproductive rate. Females only have one offspring – known as a joey – each year. Some will only breed once every two or even three years. Like all marsupials, the joey is born while still only partly developed, it then continues growing in a pouch on its mother’s abdomen, where it stays for up to seven months.