The Future of Koalas Is in Jeopardy
In February 2022, it was announced that koalas would be listed as an endangered species for the first time in eastern Australia. It’s estimated that there are fewer than 100,000 koalas left in the wild, maybe even as few as 43,000.
For those hearing this tragic news from abroad, it may have come as a shock. Koala “bears” (as they are often called, although they are actually marsupials) are one of Australia’s unique and iconic native animals. If you saw an Australian tourism ad, you’d be forgiven for thinking koalas were thriving and abundant in our country, happily frolicking alongside Kylie Minogue and the Hemsworth brothers.
But for animal and environmental advocates in Australia, sadly, we’ve known this was a long time coming.
So how did we get to this point? It might seem obvious to blame the horrific 2019-20 Australian bushfires, which saw over 3 billion animals killed, including approximately 60,000 koalas. I wrote about the fires for the Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) in this earlier blog “My Country Is On Fire: An Insider’s Perspective on Helping Australia’s Most Vulnerable Victims.”
Of course, the fires had a hugely detrimental impact. But the truth is, the decline of the koala started long before 2019.
A 2020 report by New South Wales Parliament found that fragmentation and loss of habitat poses the most serious threat to koala populations.
Koalas are uniquely adapted to the harsh Australian environment. They primarily eat eucalyptus leaves, which are toxic to most other animal species, providing them with a food source for which there is minimal competition. But decades of excessive land clearing for agriculture and logging of native forests and urban development has meant a catastrophic decline in eucalypt tree forests.
The fragmentation of these forests means koalas are forced to travel from one area to another to seek food and shelter, making them more vulnerable to other threats such as being hit by cars as they cross major highways, being predated by dogs in nearby urban areas, and falling victim to diseases such as chlamydia, which sadly has spread through most koala populations in Australia, further contributing to their decline.
So why isn’t the Government intervening to stop this?
One of the unique challenges is that over 50% of koala habitat in New South Wales lies on private land. The competition between the rights of landholders (particularly in rural and regional areas) and the need to protect koalas has become a highly politicised issue.
In fact, just months after a Parliamentary report warning that koalas would be extinct by 2050 without urgent action, the New South Wales Government presented legislation that not only failed to protect koalas but would actually make it even easier for private landholders to destroy koala habitat. This shocking “Koala Kill Bill,” as it was known in the media, was put forward as a desperate attempt to appease rural landholders and maintain votes and the support of the right-wing MPs.
The Hon. Emma Hurst MLC (whom I work for) expressed to Parliament her absolute horror that this Bill had been brought forward:
“I am sure all members will recall the footage of a woman running into the flames [during the 2019-20 Australian bushfires] and literally giving the shirt off her back to save the life of a koala. She, like so many other members of the public, was willing to risk her life to save koalas and other animals in danger. I only wish the Government would demonstrate a fraction of that empathy in its policies towards animals. Instead, the Government continues to use sentient animals as a political punching bag.”
So, this is the sad and sordid state of “koala protection” in Australia – which is why it’s no surprise that koalas have now been classed as “endangered”. If anything, it feels like too little too late.
The plight of the koalas is a symptom of an even bigger problem. Australia holds the unenviable title of “global leader in wildlife extinctions” – we have the worst mammal extinction rate of any country in the world. The Great Barrier Reef is dying from global warming, pollution, and overfishing. We are killing kangaroos so rapidly, these once-abundant animals are now also in decline.
Of course, the threat to animals and the environment is only accelerating as the climate emergency worsens and brings even more extreme weather events to our shores.
As I am writing this blog, we have just made it through another bushfire season. But now, unprecedented floods are occurring in Northern New South Wales and Queensland, wiping out regional towns and destroying even more prime koala habitat. Once again, we have seen the people of Australia step up – risking their own safety to rescue orphaned koala joeys separated from their mothers in the floods.
I can only hope this latest crisis serves as a wake-up call to the Government, to take real, urgent strides to preserve and protect the koala habitat we have left. It is critical for the public to speak up and to demand governmental action to protect koalas and the many other animals in peril in Australia.
After all, as many advocates have said – if we cannot save an animal as beloved and iconic as the koala, what hope do we have for other species?
About Tess Vickery received her law degree from Macquarie University, Australia with First Class Honors and subsequently practiced commercial and class action litigation at one of Australia’s top firms. In 2019, she received the International Society for Animal Rights Helen Jones Memorial Scholarship to study in our Animal Law LLM Program. After completing her degree, Tess returned to Australia and secured a position as policy advisor to a member of the NSW Parliament for the Animal Justice Party. She is a 2021-2022 CALS Global Ambassador.
The Center for Animal Law Studies (CALS) was founded in 2008 with a mission to educate the next generation of animal law attorneys and advance animal protection through the law. With vision and bold risk-taking, CALS has since developed into a world-renowned animal law epicenter, with the most comprehensive animal law curriculum offered anywhere. In addition, CALS is the only program that offers an advanced legal degree in animal law, now offered both in-person and online, and three specialty animal law clinics. CALS is a nonprofit organization and is only able to provide these educational opportunities through donations and grants.