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August 14, 2022

Explainer: Koalas are endangered in eastern Australia

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The koala has officially been listed as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales, and the ACT. What does this mean, and what happens now? Photo IFAW.

Brought to you by The Echo and Cosmos Magazine


The species has been officially declared endangered in NSW, Queensland, and the ACT.

The koala – Phascolarctos cinereus – has officially been listed as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales, and the ACT. What does this mean, and what happens now?

What does the endangered listing mean?

The koala is listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act as a threatened species.

There are six categories in this listing, arranged in order of severity: conservation dependent, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, extinct in the wild, and extinct.

Koalas were previously considered vulnerable in the eastern states, and their status has now been shifted to endangered. Koala populations in South Australia and Victoria are not considered vulnerable.

This listing doesn’t carry any specific legal directions, but it does allow the species’ recovery to be promoted with conservation advice, recovery plans and recovery teams.

A decade ago, my colleagues and I provided advice at the Senate Inquiry into the status, health and sustainability of Australia’s koala population, says Dr Christine Adams-Hosking, an honorary fellow at the University of Queensland.

We were elated when, in 2012, the koala was listed as nationally “vulnerable” under the EPBC Act.

But Adams-Hosking says that this listing hasn’t helped the plight of the koala.Since then, nothing has happened to facilitate the protection of koalas.

She’s not confident that the update in listing will galvanise further action. I think it is going to be similar, purely because we’ve seen this happen time and time again with other endangered listings.

It might at least get a recovery plan going, which would be a really good start, and which should have been written after the original listing in 2012.

Why are numbers declining, and how can we stop it?

There are a range of things causing koala numbers to decline. Habitat clearing and climate change are two major factors, while disease, bushfires, and road accidents also all play a role.

Habitat restoration is the key way to protect koalas from further decline.

Habitat, that’s really the problem. If the koalas had enough habitat, we wouldn’t need the endangered listing, says Adams-Hosking.

First up, we need to save koala habitat, says Grant Hamilton, associate professor in ecology at Queensland University of Technology. And we need to not only stop knocking down their homes, we need to probably plant more trees for them.

Secondly, in the areas that we’re looking for conservation, we need to understand how many are there.

This is a big venture, requiring input from ecologists, citizen scientists, and technology. Hamilton is director of the Conservation AI Hub, which allows trained citizen scientists to send in data which is analysed by AI.

We’ve trained it to look for koalas, and it’s more accurate than humans are, says Hamilton. It could also be used for spotting other animals.

This koala and her joey are very vulnerable to being hit by cars crossing roads. Photo supplied.

So, how many koalas are there?

Wildly different numbers for total koala populations are thrown around – anywhere from less than 80,000, according to the Koala Foundation, to over half a million.

Estimating numbers is unbelievably difficult, says Adams-Hosking. They’re so hard to find, let alone count.

Hamilton agrees, saying that when running studies on collared koalas in specific parks, even trained koala spotters can miss a large proportion of the creatures.

Read more: Koala populations hanging by a thread

Adams-Hosking was lead author on a 2016 study that, based on input from a panel of 15 experts, estimated there were 144,000–605,000 koalas in the wild nation-wide, with a 24 per cent decrease over the previous three generations of koalas. Declines were steep in Queensland and NSW (53 per cent and 26 per cent respectively), and less steep in Victoria and SA (14 per cent and 3 pre cent).

Where we have done quantitative work, we can see that there have been dramatic declines – up to 80 per cent in many areas – and of course, the bushfires put a big hole in that on top, says Adams-Hosking.

Professor Michael Archer, a palaeontologist at the University of New South Wales’ Earth and Sustainability Science Research Centre, says that this recent decline is out of sync with the evolutionary history of koalas.

Whatever the actual number, it’s still going to be enormously high compared with the apparent abundance of them in the past. What’s happened to koalas [is] they’ve lucked out over the last 10 million years.

Archer says that according to the fossil record, koalas were originally specialist organisms, inhabiting only a small part of the continent – the change in climate and spread of eucalyptus trees has favoured them.

What about other animals?

The koala is, of course, not the only endangered species in Australia. Other animals are also in need of protection.

Platypuses, to us, have a long-term record of massive decline, says Archer.

We’ve collected fossil platypuses in South America. And they’ve had a long-term decline over the last 60 million years to bring them to a very critical situation today. It’s an infinitely more fragile situation than the one that faces koalas.

However, he believes that protecting koala habitats is still an important move, because other species will benefit.

I’m not really too wound up about this, because any additional care for koalas has to include protection of koala habitat. And that will mean increased protection for [other] animals.

On this, Adams-Hosking agrees. Woodland forest are occupied by many other beautiful little native animals, from birds down to beetles and butterflies.

Restoration efforts that focus on the whole ecosystem are an important way to allow threatened species to recover. An example of this, according to Adams-Hosking, is the Richmond birdwing butterfly, which was listed as vulnerable in Queensland at the same time as the birdwing butterfly vine, which its larvae need to feed on.


This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Ellen Phiddian. Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.

Published by The Echo in conjunction with Cosmos Magazine.


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16 COMMENTS

  1. This always amazes me. Everyone wants to know how many koalas there are.
    The point is the number of breeding pairs there are, male to female.
    What is the use of 80,000 koalas if they are all male or all female.
    What is required are koalas that will produce more koalas.
    The number must increase and that means they must breed and produce young once the koala is listed as endangered.
    We need is a koala farm or reserve to artificially inseminate female koalas to produce more and more young.
    To leave it to nature with Mankind destroying forests is a sure way they will be extinct like the Tasmanian Tiger.

    • Breeding pairs? They are not monogamous.
      10% males and 90% females would make their numbers go up much faster without inbreeding probs.
      Just let people keep them as pets.

  2. So it’s another made up problem.
    Back in the 80s, an international team of experts declared Kangaroos to be endangered while farmers could have told them they were at plague proportions.

    • Oh Yes, Chris !
      …. And farmers declared the THYLACINES were a menace that needed culling and a government bounty.
      …”.you can’t grow grass and trees” , even if that means extinction of those Koalas and much less grass and fertility.
      …..” Rainfall follows the plough ” . even if that means greater desertification
      ….Farmers know best how to manage the Murray/Darling ( now Dead )
      ….Dingos are only to be exterminated (even though it is now proven dingos contribute mightily to farm productivity )
      …Farmers and massive subsidies will protect the Great Barrier Reef (now Dead )
      Australian farmers have been THE most destructive force historically , who are still clear- felling the environment for foreign dollars.
      Get Real ! G”)

      • Thylacines were a pest. With very low survival rate. Couldn’t even keep them as pets. As Tasmania moves further north, they would have died off anyway.
        It’s “Green Revolution” farming practices that have kill the fertility of the soil over the last few decades. Chemical farms destroy land and make food that makes people sick. Old fashioned farming is a carbon sink.
        Rainfall doesn’t follow the plow, the plow is suppose to follow the rainfall.
        Dingos have a bounty on them in Queensland. They are an invasive species from Asia. Thus the Dingo fence. Yes I have killed many personally up north. They like to threaten people, even when you are on a quad bike.
        My Mother lives next to the Great Barrier Reefs. They are not dead, I’ve checked.
        Statism is the most destructive force in history.
        Think you will find Australian farmer can’t clear land anymore. As opposed to post world war 2 when govts fined farmers for not clearing land even when the farmers knew it would cause erosion. Chinese govt seems to be allowed to clear as much of their Australian land holdings as they like. As can developers, mines, gas wells etc.

        Between 80,000 and 500,000 Koalas? Big difference.
        If they can’t figure the population out, I’m not going to trust and other numbers they present.
        Pandas were considered a myth for a century because they are so hard to find. There are plenty of those too. They just avoid humans.

      • Ken, the clear felling of the land, it all part of the ongoing project started in 1788, to turn Australia into an image of the motherland – create those productive wide open green spaces with nary a tree in sight.
        I mean what would the First Nations People, after some 60,000 years, know about trying to preserve country. Best let the white fella come and show how its done, yeah.

        • The only power to change the landscape they had was to burn it.
          A lack of technology is not proof of a lack of will to exploit the environment given the chance.

          • Having ‘technology’ is not a right to go and destroy the joint, the white fella is way loads smarter than to do that, yeah.

    • Chris, if you want to see a ‘real’ plague, look no further than the mouse plague of recent times.
      But of course, modern day farming practices are not the cause of ‘animal plagues’. It nature, like maybe pesky kangaroos, being so unkind to us humans, the Masters of the environment.

      • I’ve had to clean up from mouse plagues many times. All the more reason to have feral cats.

        We are the apex predator of all apex predators. Nature made us to be that.
        People aren’t differentiating between changing balances in nature, and things that annoy humans.

        If Koalas are in plague proportions I wouldn’t care. If they are near extinction I wouldn’t care. If you care, keeps some as pets to breed on your own money.
        Koalas are just ornamental, they make no physical different to our species or civilisation.
        There is no logical reason to care about them.

        • I feeling your logic about pests and plagues.
          The real pest and plague is of course humans, 7 billions worth and multiplying. We need to cull this destructive pest.

  3. OMG Chris you are so wrong & misinformed. Ken your comments are so SPOT on. In the 80’s when US ‘experts’ came to Aust to assess the status of Commercially hunted kangaroos (if that’s what you’re referring to) some firmly believed that these Macropods were ‘threatened’. .. not endangered. This is partly because in less than 50 yrs export quotas that were once 100,000 approx (overall ) had escalated to around 3 million. This is simply that the ‘demand dictates the kill (NPWS EVEN ADMITS THIS), which has NOTHING to do with damage mitigation on farms. I could argue that one for months on end, as the REAL DAMAGE has been created by pastoralists NOT macropods, that had lived in harmony here for millions of years. I worked on the kangaroo campaign as a environmentalist for 4 decades & was on the NSW Kangaroo ADVISORY Committee for some 15yrs. The only serious plague on this planet is human primates, haven’t you noticed ?? NO native wildlife can ever be over populating or in ‘plague’ proportions if you understand how ecology works. The only problem here is that WE have interfered /desecrated & destroyed natural systems. PLEASE read & absorb the information within the NSW Hearings on Kangaroos & Their ‘ Wellbeing’ June 2021 here is a statement from a Ecologist & Macropod scientist who has researched this vexed issue for decades. ” Mr MJADWESCH: Yes. It was much more going to the fact of misrepresenting the facts. There are regulations in New South Wales and Federal legislation which require ecologists, people such as myself if I am working on an environmental impact statement [EIS], or anyone in the scientific field to report the facts. When you look at the data, the decline is absolutely obvious. The New South Wales scientific committee conceded that up until the point of 2010-2011 when I submitted a nomination to see the kangaroos listed as a threatened species. Subsequently after that we had, as is predicted in the nomination, the populations rebounding at quite phenomenal rates, so over 400 per cent increases per annum in some districts, which is just a biological impossibility for a slow-breeding marsupial. They have one young per annum. So it seems to me that there is rather large-scale misrepresentation of the facts with relation to how kangaroos are faring under the current management settings. UNQUOTE

  4. So Mr MJADWESCH wrote “They have one young per annum”, fire him immediately. That’s observably false.

    Different species have different characteristics. You can harvest Eastern Greys all day, but Red roos would run out pretty quick.
    If global demand was high and the roos started running out, they are easy to farm.

    There are too many roos to count and since they distribute heterogeneously, no cohort of samples will allow accurate modeling due to chaos. Hunting is erratically distributed, so they run out of roos before there are a total lack of roos. Roos go where roads and tracks don’t.

    If social scientists don’t even differentiate species, then you are doing “make busy work”. Get yourselves a Systems Analyst from the tech industry.

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