Are koalas 'functionally extinct?' Not so fast, say experts

Daniel Martins
Are koalas 'functionally extinct?' Not so fast, say experts

With climate change accelerating, stories about the latest extinction are increasingly commonplace, but there's one that particularly jerked the world's heartstrings this week: A report from Australia that suggested the koala, already under dire threat, is "functionally extinct" after bushfires devastated its already shrinking habitat.

It's quite the eyebrow-raiser, given how much of a beloved icon the little marsupials are worldwide, and the claim centres on the apparent loss of around 80 per cent of the species' range along with reports that approximately 1,000 individual koalas may have been killed during the bushfires.

But though it's making the rounds again this week, it's actually a months-old claim -- we'll come to that in a minute -- and, according to experts, not only is it likely not true, it wouldn't be possible to tell one way or another given what we know, and don't know.

"There’s every possibility that over the whole range, they may eventually become functionally extinct, but we certainly couldn’t say that yet. There’s a long way to go," Dr. Christine Hosking of Australia's University of Queensland told The Weather Network.

Koala bear on log Pexels

Several media outlets repeated the 'functionally extinct' claim over the past couple of days after it resurfaced, including Forbes, but it was actually made earlier this year in May, by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), which claimed there were no more than 80,000 of the creatures left in Australia.

The 'functionally extinct' wording appears in the release at the time, and it raised some hackles even then, with pushback from several quarters, including Hosking, who penned a column debunking the claim.

NOT ENOUGH INFO, SAY EXPERTS

Though koalas' are listed as a 'vulnerable' species by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Hosking says there's just not enough information on the koalas' remaining numbers and range to say whether the bushfires have pushed them to functional extinction.

For one thing, Hosking says the animals' plight varies from area to area, such that though they are certainly locally extinct in some areas, in others they're still doing well, such that they're actually locally overabundant.

Another challenge: Their range is enormous, sprawling across four of Australia's states, making it hard to get an accurate population count.

“Until we can come up with some amazing drone technology or something that can go up and down in strips across that whole area and count them all, it’s just impossible to say," Hosking says. “Even with the bushfires, we don’t even know how many koalas have been affected there yet. We only know the ones who’ve been rescued."

As such, estimates vary as to just how many koalas there still are in the wild.

Dr. Stuart Blanch, Forest and Woodland Policy Manager for WWF-Australia, says estimates range from a high of 330,000 in 2012, to as low as 50,000, while WWF-Australia relies on expert advice suggesting the number is around 200,000 in the wild.

Koala and joey pexels

WWF-Australia doesn't agree with the 'functionally extinct' label, but what isn't in dispute, Blanch says, is that the numbers have likely plummetted some 95 per cent since British colonization, and there isn't much information on the genetic diversity of those that remain.

Blanch said they could be extinct in the wild in eastern Australia within 30 years, due to a combination of man-made factors such as tree-clearing for farming and urban development, and climate change. The bushfires which have been raging in the region may hasten that extinction.

"Unfortunately it is still too early to adequately assess the full damage to koala populations and their habitats, but there is little doubt that the damage is very significant," Blanch says. "Koala groups estimate the fires have killed hundreds of koalas in New South Wales and Queensland, a serious blow for a species in decline."

Claims about functional extinction can hurt conservation efforts, Blanch says, by eroding hope for the koalas' future and desensitizing not only the public but also decision-makers who can actually bring in policies that would help the marsupials.

'CANARY IN A COAL MINE'

Blanch says more needs to be done to halt the koalas' decline, a full spectrum that runs from stopping and reversing habitat loss while expanding protected areas, to increasing funding for landowners who protect koala habitats, to reintroducing Aboriginal fire management techniques to mitigate future bushfires.

Hosking, meanwhile, says there's been some progress, in the form of research into prioritizing areas to be protected, and the koala was included in Australia's equivalent of the Species at Risk Act as a 'vulnerable' species earlier in the decade. However, she says habitat loss due to land clearing continues apace, with little action.

“It’s in writing, it's great, but nothing happens on the ground in reality to protect the koalas,” she says.

And though she, like most other conservationists who've been asked in the media this week, thinks the 'functionally extinct' claim is overblown, she says the flipside is that it's got more people talking about the koalas' plight. They're especially useful as a kind of 'canary in the coalmine' species, given their sensitivity to changes in their environment.

"If we look at the koala being a victim of climate change and land clearing and all these things, then the koala is the person to say 'hey, look, what's happening to me, everyone sit up and take notice of what we’re doing to our environment everywhere',” she says.

WATCH BELOW: MOMMA KOALA PHOTOGRAPHED PROTECTING BABY FROM AUSTRALIA FIRES