First of all: is the koala really at risk of extinction or is it damaged?
We don’t know exactly how many koalas were in Australia when the Europeans arrived.
But to find out how many were in Australia in the mid to late 1800s, records from the koala fur trade tell a surprising story.
In Queensland itself, 500,000 skins were collected in 31 days from the last open season in 1927.
Across Australia, as many as 8 million koalas were killed for their skins during the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to the Australian Koala Foundation.
Most of it is sent to Europe, the UK and the US to be turned into coats, gloves and hats, according to koala ecologist Frank Carrick of the University of Queensland (UQ).
“There was a massive fur trade to Europe and especially to Britain in the late 1800s. There were millions [of export skins] recorded, “said Professor Carrick.
Currently, our best estimates for the current number of koalas come from a 2012 study by UQ’s Christine Hosking, and her colleagues.
They calculated that there were about 330,000 koalas left in Australia, although given the difficulty of counting them, the margin of error ranged from 144,000 to 605,000.
Dr Hosking and colleagues found that in the 21 years preceding 2012 and projected over the next 21 years, Queensland’s koala population will more than halve, and in New South Wales it will fall by 26 percent.
Victoria, South Australia and the ACT will see significant, but smaller, decline.
So is it fair to say koalas are at risk of extinction? Koala expert and zoologist Bill Ellis from the University of Queensland says many parts of Australia, especially Queensland and New South Wales, are:
“The short answer is yes, we should be very worried,” said Dr Ellis.
Professor Carrick agreed: “They are in trouble, [but] it’s not a lost cause, “he said.
So how do we stop the koalas’ decline?
Number one priority
It helps to think about the actions needed to preserve the koala as a hierarchy.
Of utmost importance – priority number one – is stopping habitat loss, according to koala microbiologist Peter Timms of the University of the Sunshine Coast.
That includes restoring degraded habitats and creating connectivity between patches.
“Habitat [loss] is the number one threat. If they don’t get a tree, nothing matters, “said Professor Timms.
Researchers have outlined several approaches to this problem, depending on whether we are talking about a rural or urban environment.
In urban environments, where the main threats are housing, industrial infrastructure and roads, preserving koala habitat needs to be a priority over development, according to Dr Hosking.
That means giving koalas a dollar value and a healthy environment.
“It’s not too late [to re-establish wildlife corridors] but it really comes back to the political will. Until the government is willing to say, ‘no, you can’t clean up there, but we’ll pay you to reforest’… that’s not going to happen. “
In rural areas, the pressure on koalas comes mostly from clearing land for agriculture and mining.
In many cases, regrowth is cleared to make pasture for livestock. For a farmer, allowing that regrowth to become forest means losing grazing area and income.
The large-scale solution proposed by many koala ecologists like Dr Ellis is to pay farmers to restore and maintain koala habitat.
“The real future here could be an incentive for people to include koala habitat on their land,” he said.
“There’s a lot of good farmland, but you don’t want to go bankrupt [farmers]. You want to make it feasible to have koala habitat in their country. “
He said farmers fear their land will be locked up and “pushed against the wall”.
And Dr Hosking agrees: “Money speaks. [Farmers] must have a reason for doing so. If there is an entry dollar value [standing] tree, they’ll stop pushing it. “
Priority 2, 3, 4, 5 …
The reason habitat loss is priority number one is because almost all other threats are exacerbated by it.
Koalas are more likely to be hit by cars if their habitat is fragmented by roads and they are forced to travel between patches in search of food.
They are more likely to encounter dogs when the urban environment interferes with their space.
And they are more prone to diseases like chlamydia when stressed.
Climate change and more intense bushfires and drought are other causes of koala decline, especially in inland areas where summer temperatures are becoming more severe, said Dr Hosking.
Expanding habitat and connectivity provides resilience to forest fires and means populations can regenerate from patches that don’t burn.
And while that can only help fight climate change, more trees means more carbon reduction.
Although tackling climate change is a long-term challenge, there is some more promising news regarding tackling chlamydia.
Even though chlamydia was already in the koala population when the Europeans arrived, we might make things worse, according to Professor Timms.
“The chlamydia in koalas is very similar to the chlamydia in sheep and cattle,” he said.
“There is little science to suggest that we might make things worse by bringing in [livestock]. “
But at least one vaccine is almost ready to launch, according to Professor Timms.
His laboratory at USC has been developing a single-shot vaccine over the past 10 years, with “very promising” results.
“We did a trial where we administered a vaccine to animals that were already infected with the disease. In six out of seven koalas it actually cured the disease and they could be released back into the wild without using antibiotics, which can have serious side effects,” he said.
It also appears to prevent disease in infected animals before they start showing symptoms, he added.
“We are now at a stage where we think that 90 percent of the basic research work has been completed. I am eager now to move this from the lab and into the real world,” said Professor Timms.
While restoring and protecting habitat is essential for koalas’ long-term survival, vaccines can help buy us some time.
“If you can stop these populations from becoming infertile then their reproductive rates will start to rise,” he said.
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