Australia’s government has published new referral guidelines on the koala, which has been listed as a “vulnerable” species since 2012 and faces further endangerment by the destruction and fragmentation of its native habitat.
Professor Corey Bradshaw, an ecologist at the University of Adelaide, told the Guardian that koalas are struggling in part due to the loss of 40 percent of the Australian bush. Koalas (phascolarctos cinereus) are notoriously fussy eaters, dining almost exclusively on eucalyptus leaves despite the plant’s toxicity and relative lack of nutrition.
Over the past two decades, eucalyptus trees have been cleared for agriculture, logging, mining and urban development. This leaves koalas without homes and brings them into increasingly greater contact with the human world. The Guardian reports that an estimated 4,000 koalas are killed by dogs and cars each year, with koala populations dropping by 40 percent in the state of Queensland and 33 percent in New South Wales.
As if this weren’t bad enough, koalas are also particularly vulnerable to climate change. Scientists have forecast longer droughts, more intense brushfires and more frequent temperature spikes, such as the record-breaking heat wave Australia endured this past October.
“In the past decade, we have experienced the hottest temperatures on record followed by floods and cyclones,” University of Queensland koala expert Dr. Clive McAlpine told Inter Press Service. “The koalas are highly susceptible to heat stress and dehydration.”
Conservation groups are irritated that, while the government has suggested methods of helping koalas adapt to human encroachment, no recovery strategy has been proposed.
“Where is the recovery plan?,” asked Deborah Tabart, chief executive of the Australian Koala Foundation. “That is my big question. The states are incapable of protecting the koala, which is why we went for a federal listing in the first place. There’s no doubt these guidelines will just refer things back to the states. They’ll be useless.
“We need a national recovery plan that would mean developers have to change their behavior. And yet there’s no sign of it. They’ve got rid of so many people in the department I’m not even sure there’s anyone left who can do it.”
Tabart went on to tell the Guardian that, without human intervention, the koala may not be long for this world. Her frustration is almost palpable:
“The koala is on its way to extinction,” Tabart said. “I’m tired of having to explain, over the past 28 years, that if a koala has its house cut down, it starves to death, or a dog or car wipes them out. Until there’s something that says ‘no, Mr Developer, you can’t cut the trees down,’ we’ll keep having extinctions.”