Editor’s Note: Since publication, the headline and lede of this story have been changed to better reflect the content of the reporting, and some clarifications have been made.
As Australia experiences record-breaking drought and bushfires, koala populations have dwindled along with their habitat, leaving one group claiming the species is “functionally extinct,” though not all koala experts accept this claim.
The chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, estimates that over 1,000 koalas have been killed from the fires and that 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed.
Recent bushfires, along with prolonged drought and deforestation, has led to koalas becoming “functionally extinct,” according to the Australian Koala Foundation. However, some researchers call into question that prediction, noting how difficult it is to measure total koala populations and populations could be a much larger than estimated by the AKF.
Functional extinction is when a population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable. While some individuals could reproduce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely and highly susceptible to disease.
Deforestation and bushfires destroy the main nutrient source of koalas, the eucalyptus tree. An adult koala will eat up to 2 pounds of eucalyptus leaves per day as its main staple of nutrients. While eucalyptus plants will grow back after a fire, it will take months, leaving no suitable food source for koalas and starvation a likely scenario for many.
Many are urging the Australian government to enact the Koala Protection Act, written in 2016 but never passed into law and molded after the Bald Eagle Protection Act in the U.S. The Koala Protection Act would work to protect habitats and trees vital to koalas as well as protect koalas from hunting.
Recent viral videos of Australians rescuing koalas has led to increased donation to support hospitalization and help for burned koalas.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital setup a Go Fund Me page seeking donations to help the hospital treat injured koalas. To date, they have raised $1.33 million, well over their $25,000 goal. This comes from over 30,000 donors.
Part of their effort is to install drinking stations for koalas in areas devastated by the fires. The funds will also be used for a “Koala Ark” as a refuge for burned koalas to live in a healthy habitat during rehabilitation.
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