Government officials have declared koalas endangered across much of eastern Australia, citing the impacts of drought, bushfires and habitat loss on dwindling marsupial populations from the country. But some conservation groups said the action was too small, too late.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced on Friday that she was increasing protections for koalas in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory by change status from vulnerable to endangered. The government is also providing millions of dollars in conservation funding and seeking state approval for a national recovery plan, she said.
“Together we can secure a healthy future for the koala and this decision, and the total [$53 million U.S.] we have been committed to koalas since 2019, will play a key role in this process,” she said.
The move comes a decade after koala populations in these three regions were first classified as vulnerable, meaning they faced a high risk of extinction in the wild in the medium term. Their endangered status implies a much more imminent risk.
Without urgent government intervention, koalas in New South Wales would be extinct by 2050, a parliamentary inquiry released in June 2020 found.
Koala population has declined dramatically
Koala numbers have dropped dramatically in recent years, due to climate-related weather events and rampant land clearance for agricultural and urban development. The koala populations of Queensland and New South Wales, for example, were recently found decreased by 50% or more over the past two decades.
the deadly bushfires in 2019 and 2020 – which burned millions of acres over several months – further exacerbated the decline. Some 60,000 koalas have been “killed, injured or otherwise affected” by the fires, according to a report commissioned by World Wildlife Fund Australia.
“The bushfires broke the camel’s back,” said Josey Sharrad, campaign manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. in a report released on Friday. “This should be a wake-up call for Australia and the government to act much more quickly to protect critical habitat from development and land clearing and to seriously address the impacts of climate change.”
The country lost 30% of its total koala population between 2018 and 2021, according to a report of the Australian Koala Foundation. This loss was particularly marked in New South Wales, which saw a decline of 41%.
While bushfires have contributed to population decline, AKF President Deborah Tabart said last year that they were far from the only driver.
“We have seen a drastic decline in inland populations due to drought, heat waves and lack of drinking water for koalas,” she said. “I’ve seen landscapes that look like the moon – with dead and dying trees everywhere.”
Land clearing was a major factor
Clearing has intensified in recent decades, with World Wildlife Fund Australia noting that it is multiplied by 13 in New South Wales since the government weakened native vegetation laws in 2016.
Conservation and animal welfare groups have long urged the Australian government to take more action to protect the species.
In April 2020, WWF-Australia, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Humane Society International jointly called on the federal government to reclassify koalas as endangered, saying the move would raise funds, boost public support, and increase protection for the forests and woodlands that koalas inhabit.
The Australian government has allocated funds for koala conservation efforts in recent years.
He pledged $13 million in 2019 for habitat protection and restoration, health research and medical support, and the federal koala monitoring program. And last monththe government has announced that it will devote almost an additional $36 million towards recovery and conservation initiatives over the next four years.
Conservation groups welcome reclassification but say more action needed
All three groups welcomed Ley’s announcement on Friday, but stressed that the status change alone was not enough to save the koalas.
They called on the government to take a tougher stance against deforestation and refocus its efforts on protecting and restoring forests, saying its words would be wasted without action.
Tabart, along with the AKF, called the reclassification “nothing more than a token gesture”, saying it was “too little, too late” and calling for meaning legislative change. The organization has long advocated for a Koala Protection Actwhich would focus on protecting koalas from developers.
“A change in status is just a word,” said the AKF tweeted. “It doesn’t do anything legally to stop land clearing, which is the main reason koalas become homeless and then get sick.”
The foundation also criticized the government for choosing not to list koalas as endangered in Victoria and South Australia, saying the decision shows “how out of touch our political leaders are with the current state of the world.” koala”.
Sharrad of the International Fund for Animal Welfare welcomed the decision but also described it as a “double-edged sword”.
“We should never have let things get to the point where we risk losing a national icon,” she said. “If we can’t protect an iconic species endemic to Australia, what chance do lesser known but no less important species have?”
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