Koalas Are Now Functionally Extinct – How Can We Save Them?

Koalas are in serious trouble. Can they be saved?
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From their fluffy ears to their five-digit paws, koalas are easy to recognize. Native to Australia, these adorable animals are often called koala bears, but they're actually marsupials. Due to habitat destruction and other problems, the Australian Koala Foundation believes there are fewer than 80,000 koalas left in Australia, so the species is "functionally extinct."

More About Koalas

Similar to other marsupials like kangaroos and wombats, koalas have pouches to carry their young. The offspring, called a joey, is about the size of a jellybean when it's born. The joey climbs into its mother's pouch and develops for the next six months. Dependent on its mother's milk for months, the joey is eventually able to start eating eucalyptus leaves. You may have seen young koalas hanging on to their mother's backs as they sit on trees and munch on leaves.

Koalas can only eat leaves from eucalyptus trees, so they live in the forests of Australia. They spend most of their lives in the trees, where they're safe from predators. Koalas can spend 20 hours per day sleeping! Although it may seem as if they don't contribute a lot to ecosystems, koalas help keep eucalyptus forests healthy by eating leaves at the top, and their droppings enrich the soil.

From 8 Million to 80,000 Koalas

According to the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), Australia once had 8 million koalas that were killed for their fur between 1890 and 1927. Their valuable fur pelts were sent to the U.K., U.S. and Canada. Since the fur from koalas is waterproof, it was used to make a variety of items, such as hats.

Koalas were hunted almost to the point of extinction in the 1920s, according to the AKF. In August 1927, named Black August, 800,000 koalas died. The AKF believes that one of the only reasons why the fur trade ended was because U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover banned the importation of koala pelts.

Today, the AKF believes only 1% of the 8 million koalas are left. It estimates that fewer than 80,000 koalas remain in Australia. Koalas are extinct in 41 of the 128 federal electorates or districts in the country.

Functionally Extinct

The AKF states that koalas are functionally extinct in Australia, which means that they're threatened, and their population is reduced. If the population of these animals falls below a critical number, then the species can become extinct. Although koalas would remain in zoos and nature preserves, they could disappear from the wild. The small numbers that would be left in captivity would not be enough to repopulate the species.

The Australian government considers koalas to be vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory, while the AKF believes koalas are in danger all over Australia and thinks their status should be upgraded to critically endangered. Since 2011, the Australian government has been aware that koalas are in trouble based on a Senate Inquiry. Although they're protected under the 2012 national environment law, the AKF doesn't think this is enough.

Biggest Threats to Koalas

Koalas face multiple threats in Australia, but the AKF points out that habitat destruction and loss is the biggest problem facing the species. From bushfires to trees being cleared for logging, koalas are losing their homes in great numbers. Tree clearing also takes away their only food source. Habitat conservation is becoming more important to save them as both urban and agricultural development spreads in Australia.

Cars have become the second biggest problem for these animals. Due to the encroachment of humans on their land, koalas are sometimes the victims of car accidents. In South East Queensland, cars kill 300 koalas per year. The Department of Environment and Heritage Protection believes these numbers don't reflect all the koalas that are killed because not everyone reports the accidents.

Habitat loss and car accidents are tied together. As more of their habitats disappear, koalas have to spend more time on the ground moving from one eucalyptus tree to another. This increases their risk of wandering onto a road and being hit by a car.

Other Threats to Koalas

Koalas are also threatened by dog attacks. Again, this is linked to the loss of their habitats. As people build homes closer to their habitats and get domestic dogs, the likelihood of koalas interacting with these animals increases. The loss of habitats also means that koalas spend more time on the ground moving from tree to tree so they can eat, and they're more likely to run into dogs.

They may seem cute, but koalas can suffer from stress. When their bodies are under stress, it increases the chances of them becoming sick or suffering from disease. Climate change is also having an impact on koalas. Droughts and high temperatures make it more difficult for them to survive. Another problem is the limited genetic diversity that affects the species as numbers decrease. Changes to their environment are cutting off populations from each other and decreasing genetic diversity as the same groups breed.

Koala Protection Act

The AKF believes a Koala Protection Act is overdue and necessary for the survival of the species. The organization points out that declaring the koalas as vulnerable in 2012 hasn't helped, and populations continue to decline in Australia. It's time to protect both koalas and their habitats from destruction.

The AKF points out that most current legislation focuses on the actual animals without consideration for their habitat loss. If koalas lose all of their eucalyptus trees, they can't survive. The Koala Protection Act would preserve these trees and save the species. The act would also protect koalas from being killed. It's based on the successful Bald Eagle Act in the U.S., and the AKF states that it would help prevent koalas from becoming extinct.

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