Koalas are at risk of extinction by 2050 and recent legislation has people worried. Let’s unpack why they’re concerned (and what you can do to help).

You may have heard about koala protection measures being stripped back in NSW recently. Confused by all the government jargon and political hissy fits? So were we. So we got our resident wildlife ecologist and environmental educator Caitlin Weatherstone to break it down for us in this koality article.

Our Cutest (and Sleepiest) Marsupials Are Having a Rough Time

Poor Blinky! Koalas are only found in Australia and most of the time just serve to remind us why you shouldn’t eat too much eucalyptus leaf. But due to a series of human-driven events, namely habitat destruction, hunting, and climate change, our mate Blinky is in real danger of extinction. 

Months before the Black Summer bushfires, a parliamentary enquiry estimated that koala extinction in NSW could occur as soon as 2050. I’m sure we don’t need to remind you that over 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in those bushfires, with one third – 10,000 – of NSW’s koala population perishing with them. 

I still cry when I think about Lewis the koala, rescued by an angel-lady who took the shirt off her back to grab him from the flames near Port Macquarie. 

Koalas Under Threat – Can We Save Our Most Iconic Australian Animal, Marie-Laurence Paquette, koala in a tree, eucalypt, animal, native

Photo by Marie-Laurence Paquette

But how threatened are koalas, really?

It depends where they are in Australia. Koalas are found in five states and territories on the south and east coasts in Queensland, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Victoria and South Australia. They’re listed as ‘vulnerable’ federally, and at a state level in NSW, ACT and QLD. 

In their southern range, koalas are not listed as vulnerable and are deemed widespread. But they aren’t without their struggles; in 2015 the Victorian Government culled 700 of them in the Otways because they were overpopulating and eating themselves out of house and home.

Koalas have many threats facing their survival, with the biggies being:

  • Climate change and prolonged droughts (rising CO₂ decreases the nutrients in eucalyptus leaves. Know a climate denier? Read this)
  • Habitat destruction for logging, development and primary production
  • Bushfires and other natural disasters
  • Disease (a new Chlamydia vaccine program has just rolled out)
  • Collisions with cars
  • Attacks by domestic dogs

They’ve been through a lot, our koalas. They were almost hunted to extinction by colonisers in the 19th and 20th centuries when governments announced ‘open season’ on them for their fur. 600,000 koalas were culled during this time! Thankfully, this practice was banned in the 1920s and koalas were instead introduced to a whole new raft of threats with the post-war population expansion.

In just the last few years, koalas have been heavily impacted by the drought and bushfire season of 2019/20, as well as legislation changes to land clearing laws. 

It was found that 30% of koala habitat was destroyed in the recent bushfires in NSW alone. And the Forestry Corporation of NSW has already recommenced logging bushfire affected areas. Blinky cannot seem to catch a break!

What’s the deal with the new land clearing laws in NSW?

Last year the NSW Government announced their plans to double koala populations in the state by 2050. And whilst this sounds like a bloody great idea, a new State Environment Planning Policy – Koala Habitat Protection 2021 (let’s call it Koala SEPP 2021 – commenced on 17th March 2021) outlined new measures that have outraged and confused some scientists, farmers and koala conservation groups. 

Basically, it protects koala habitat in highly developing areas (yay) but enables farmers and foresters in regional areas of NSW to clear koala habitat for their operations, without the red tape (nay).

It seems koalas won’t get the protection where they need it, as around 80% of the state would be exempt from protection. Many are concerned that the NSW Government will fall short of their target to double koala populations if they implement the new Koala SEPP 2021.

The NSW Government’s justification of the Koala SEPP 2021 was that it gives farmers a break and restricts the clearing of koala habitat in areas where 95% of developments are said to occur in NSW – in metropolitan areas of Sydney, Blue Mountains and Central Coast.

But that’s not where most of NSW’s koalas live – 60% of NSW’s koalas live on private property, mostly in regional and rural areas! All other areas in NSW will effectively still be under the rules of the old Koala SEPP and clearing can proceed sans paperwork, permits and licences.

Koalas Under Threat – Can We Save Our Most Iconic Australian Animal, Paul Daley @alushforest, koala, australian, native, animal

Most koala’s live on private property in regional and rural areas, areas not protected by Koala SEPP 2021. | @alushforest

What has to happen next?

To accompany the Koala SEPP 2021, the NSW Government are developing new codes under the Local Land Services and Private Native Forestry Acts. We can expect to see those come to light within the next month. 

We don’t know what they will look like yet or what they will mean for koalas, so we’ll have to hang tight and wait for the news.

A Legacy of Land Clearing

You don’t need many koalafications to see Australia’s poor track record when it comes to land clearing and mammalian extinctions. 

Remember a few years back, when WWF-Australia named Australia as one of the world’s top 11 deforesting countries, the only developing nation to make the list? And when it was announced that Australia has one of the worst mammalian extinction rates in the world? Ouch.

History tells us that any relaxations given in land clearing legislation results in a significant increase in land clearing rates, primarily for cattle and their feed. So, we can only imagine what is going to happen after these changes come into play…

Koalas Under Threat – Can We Save Our Most Iconic Australian Animal, Marie-Laurence Paquette, koala in a tree, eucalypt, animal, native

Australia has a terrible track record when it comes to protecting its wildlife and forests. | Photo by Marie-Laurence Paquette

What does this all mean for koalas?

‘No tree… No me’. That’s the slogan of the Australian Koala Foundation, who have worked tirelessly to save the koala over the last 33 years. With much of NSW’s koala habitat vulnerable to destruction, this potentially treeless landscape may be the non-future for our koalas. 

But everyone loves koalas, right? If we can’t save THE KOALA, then what hope do any other Australian wildlife have? It’s hard to imagine a future without these fluffy drop bears. 

Their extinction would be a shame in so many ways; they serve important ecological roles as the only exclusively-eucalypt herbivore, and as delicious, gum-drop flavoured prey items to many native predators. Koalas also have deep cultural significance to First Nations people around Australia and feature in many Dreamtime stories and ancient rock artworks.

Did you know the name ‘koala’ comes from an Aboriginal word meaning ‘no drink’? Koalas do, in fact, consume water but not by obvious means. On Bundjalung country, where I’m so fortunate to live, the local name for koala is ‘burbi’ or ‘budabe’ and to the north of here the Yugambeh people call them ‘borobi’ or ‘boorabee’. 

Humans and koalas have lived side by side on this wide brown land for tens of thousands of years. A future without them would be unbearable.

There’s many ways you can (and should) help koalas!

  • Get informed about the issues affecting your local koala populations. Start with this article and support the creation of the Great Koala National Park in NSW.
  • Sign this petition. And tell your friends.
  • Get old fashioned and write to your local and state members saying what koalas mean to you. 
  • Report koala sightings (dead or alive) to your local wildlife authorities. This will help them keep tabs on how the populations are doing.
  • Koalas need habitat, so jump onto your nearest tree planting events and lobby against backward land clearing laws.
  • Keep your dogs and cats indoors at night, or at least restrained behind a fence so they don’t roam. Not only is it unsafe for your pets, but it’s unsafe for our local wildlife too.
  • Avoid adventuring off-track in recently burnt bushland. This degrades the landscape and restricts plants from growing back to their former glory. WAE wrote about this here.
  • Find out what the Indigenous name for koala is in your area and learn about its cultural significance.
  • Learn about other vulnerable wildlife in your area – they’re (we’re) all connected. Start here with another of Australia’s wacky wildlife species.
  • And here’s a quirky one for the future – help grow koala forests by being buried in a forest cemetery!

Feature photo by Amy DeBoer – Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary