The Australian Koala Foundation declared koalas officially “functionally extinct,” a term which means that though there are still about 80,000 koalas, they are either unlikely to reproduce another generation, prone to inbreeding due to low numbers or may no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. The iconic Australian animal is on a fast track to extinction and has suffered from deforestation, disease, climate change-driven drought and a massive slaughter for fur in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Australian government listed the species as “vulnerable” in 2012 when there was thought to be between 100,000 and 500,000 koalas. Since the declaration, the government has done very little to develop or implement a protection and recovery plan.
With an estimated population that could even be as low as 43,000, koalas are very likely to inbreed and become even more susceptible to disease. At these small population numbers, the marsupial has very little impact on its ecosystem, the eucalyptus forest. Koalas were once critical to the nutrient cycling of the forest, with their feces an important source of fertilizer. Large koalas can consume up to 1 kilogram of eucalyptus leaves per night.
Logging and urban development has encroached into what was once an abundant forest ecosystem, leading many to believe that the government needs to declare and expand protected areas of the forests. The Australia Koala Foundation has proposed a Koala Protection Act that focuses on conserving the forest as the primary strategy for protecting koalas.
“The koala is one of Australia’s most recognizable symbols, but its survival hangs in the balance,” the San Diego Zoo said in a statement. “Formerly thought to be common and widespread, koalas are now vulnerable to extinction across much of its northern range.”
Image by Mathias Appel