Australia officially classified koalas as an “endangered” species on much of its eastern coast on Friday after suffering the consequences of forest fires, deforestation, drought and disease.
Conservation organizations warn that the population of these marsupials has plunged across much of eastern Australia in the last two decades and warn that they may be hurtling toward extinction.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the animals had been classified as “endangered” to offer them a higher level of protection in the states of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory.
“We are taking unprecedented action to protect the koala,” he added, recalling the government’s recent pledge to allocate 50 million Australian dollars (more than US$35 million) for its preservation.
The koala, an internationally recognized symbol of Australia’s unique wildlife, was classified as “vulnerable” on the east coast a decade ago.
Koalas have gone from “vulnerable to endangered in the space of a decade. It’s a surprisingly rapid decline,” said Stuart Blanch, conservation specialist for WWF-Australia.
“Today’s decision is welcome but it will not stop koalas from slipping into extinction unless it is accompanied by stronger laws and incentives to protect forests,” he added.
The Scientific Committee for Endangered Species, an independent government agency, estimates that the koala population fell from 185,000 to 92,000 between 2001 and 2021.
For Alexia Wellbelove, from the Humane Society International, the koalas on the East Coast could disappear by 2050 if nothing is done.
“We cannot afford more forest clearing,” he says.
Studies by the Australian Conservation Foundation show that the federal government has approved the clearing of more than 25,000 hectares of koala habitat since the species was declared vulnerable.
“Australian environmental laws are so ineffective that they have failed to stop the ongoing destruction of koala habitat in Queensland and New South Wales for ten years when the species was already supposed to be protected,” said Basha Stasak, a person in charge of the foundation.
“We must stop allowing their habitats to be razed for mining, real estate or agricultural projects, and industrial logging,” he added.
Before the devastating fires that devastated the country between 2019 and 2020, koalas were already threatened by deforestation, drought, disease, car crashes and dog attacks, explained Josey Sharrad, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
“We should never have let things get to a point where we risk losing a national symbol,” he lamented.
According to her, “the forest fires were the straw that broke the camel’s back. This should be a wake-up call to act faster and protect essential habitats from development and logging and to take seriously the fight against the effects of climate change”.