Tag Archives: koala

Koalas are now officially endangered in Australia

Bush fire, drought, habitat loss, and disease have taken a toll on the once abundant koalas in Australia over the years, to the point that the government has now listed the iconic marsupial as endangered for most of its territory. The decision comes two years after a parliamentary investigation predicted the koalas would be extinct in the New South Wales region by 2050 if no urgent government intervention was implemented.

Image credit: Flickr / Mathias Appel.

Koalas, the quintessential Australian animal, had been rated “vulnerable” in 1999, but its status has now been upgraded amid its declining numbers. The reclassification applies to Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), where most koalas live. The Environment Ministry said a recovery plan for koalas would soon be set in place.

The plan includes the creation of laws to protect koalas and their natural habitat. Additionally, the government would commit about $35 million in the next four years for koala recovery and conservation efforts. This was welcomed by NGOs but they described it as a “drop in the ocean” if the causes of the species decline aren’t tackled.

“This listing adds priority when it comes to the conservation of the koala,” Environment minister Sussan Ley said in a press conference. “The impact of prolonged drought, followed by the black summer bushfires, and the cumulative impacts of disease, urbanization and habitat loss over the past twenty years have led to this.”

A very challenged species

The critical situation of the koala got global attention in 2019 when bush fires raged over millions of hectares, disrupting the animal’s habitat. A report by the World Wildfire Fund estimated that more than 60,000 koalas were “killed, injured or affected in some way.” It wasn’t just koalas, three billion other animals were affected by the fires.

In response, the Australian government committed almost $13 million, half of which to be used in restoring the habitats and half in health research. But that wasn’t enough, environmental NGOs agreed. In 2020, WWF, the Human Society, and the Fund for Animal Welfare collectively nominated the animal for listing as an endangered species.

The koala population dropped to less than 58,000 in 2021 from more than 80,000 in 2018, according to a report by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) published last year. The worst drop was in the state of New South Wales, where the numbers plummeted by 41%. There were no upward numbers in any region, with some with as few as five koalas.

“Posing with a cuddly Koala and announcing a big chunk of money is undeniably a vote winner. But, if the Federal Government is serious about saving the species, their splash of cash needs to be put a horse in front of the cart – and that is decent mapping to know where the Koalas are or could be,” Deborah Tabart, head of AFK, said in a statement.

Koalas currently face a wide array of threats in Australia. A whole colony can be wiped out by a single bushfire, according to AFK. The animals are also affected by diseases caused by the chlamydia bacteria, such as conjunctivitis and urinary tract infections. Clearing of land for infrastructure and agriculture development can also lead to loss of their habitat.

Koala vaccination campaign kicks off as species battles chlamydia epidemic

This year seems to be all about vaccination — not just for humans, but for koalas as well. However, they’re not doing it for COVID-19. 

As part of a trial, about 400 koalas will be vaccinated against chlamydia — a sexually transmitted disease (STD) also found in humans that has spread widely among the furry animals in some areas of Australia. The researchers behind the initiative hope the roll-out of the vaccine will significantly improve the survival and reproduction of the animals.

Image credit: Creative Commons.

Wild koalas can get infected with chlamydia through sexual contact and newborns can contract it by eating pap, a nutritious type of feces excreted by infected mothers (yes, koalas do that). It’s not really clear why the animals are so vulnerable to the disease, with previous studies suggesting a virus in the same family as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) could be the reason. 

While humans are affected by the bacterium Chlamydia trachomatis, koalas are targeted by the Chlamydia pecorum — a different ‘breed’ of chlamydia, though both can cause infertility and permanent blindness if left untreated. Antibiotics used in humans can also work for koalas, but the success rate varies and some antibiotics produce harmful side effects, disrupting the koalas’ gut bacteria. 

The diet of wild koalas is based on eucalyptus leaves. While nutritious, leaves have a compound called tanning that can be highly toxic if it’s not broken down by gut bacteria — and the antibiotics seem to be causing just that, leaving koalas unable to process their meals. That’s why new antibiotics and even a vaccine have been long searched for. 

Trying out the new vaccine

The vaccine was developed by researchers at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) in Australia. Professor Peter Timms spent the past decade investigating the impact of chlamydia in koalas and sequencing the koala genome, which has now led to the vaccine. It has already passed Phase 1 and Phase 2 trials, with over 250 koalas vaccinated. 

Timms argues the vaccine is completely safe, with a good immune response and a decrease in the levels of chlamydia infection identified in the trials. Now, for phase 3, the plan is to vaccinate 400 animals, starting at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, the Moggill Koala Rehabilitation Center, and the RSPCA Wildlife Hospital and then continuing with animals in the wild. 

“We are now at the exciting stage of being ready to roll out the vaccine as part of large Phase 3 trials,” Timms said in a statement. “While this vaccination will directly benefit each of the animals, the trial will also have a focus on the protection provided by vaccination. All koalas will be microchipped and the hospital will record any animals that return for any reason.”

Ambert Gillett, a veterinarian at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital involved in the research, said chlamydia is a “cruel disease” for koalas, causing conjunctivitis, bladder infections, and infertility. Having a vaccine will largely help to prevent infection, she added. Chlamydia is the most common reason for koala admission to the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. 

As well as chlamydia, koalas are also threatened by global warming and tree-clearing. Climate change is leading to the koala range being reduced in Australia because of fewer nutritious eucalyptus leaves available. At the same time, the expansion of agriculture means koalas have to spend a longer time on the ground moving from tree to tree.

Koalas could soon be listed as endangered in Australia

Threatened by bushfires and ongoing habitat destruction, the koala is being officially considered for listing as endangered by the Australian government. The species is now seen as ‘vulnerable’ according to local environmental laws but this could soon change as the number of koalas keeps dropping.

Credit Mathias Appel Flickr

The government is also considering upgrading the status of the greater glider to endangered, as 30% of its habitat range was affected by bushfires. Several frog and fish species, such as the Blue Mountains perch and Pugh’s frog, are also being considered for critically endangered listing, as well as some species of kangaroo.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley asked the threatened species scientific committee to complete its assessments by October next year. The koala assessment will consider the combined populations of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. The species is under multiple sources of pressure such as drought, wildfire, and habitat destruction.

Environmental groups nominated the species for re-listing as endangered and welcome the government’s move but asked for further measures. “We welcome prioritization for the koala but also hope the process can be sped up and the koala listed as endangered before October 2021,” Nicola Beynon of Humane Society International, told The Guardian.

The Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a wildlife conservation organization, said that at least 5,000 koalas have died to the wildfires seen in 2019 and 2020. That’s about 12% of the population of koalas in the New South Wales area, which the NGO said is an intentionally low calculation.

If further measures aren’t implemented to prevent habitat loss, koalas could become extinct in New South Wales before 2050, according to a recent parliamentary inquiry. The findings concluded that the government estimate that there are 36,000 koalas in the state is outdated and unreliable.

The report also found habitat loss remains the largest threat to the species’ survival and yet logging and clearing of habitat has continued. It said this habitat loss had been compounded by the 2019-20 bushfires, with an estimated 24% of koala habitat on public land affected. In some areas, as much as 81% of habitat had been burnt.

“Given the scale of loss as a result of the fires to many significant local populations, the committee believes the koala will become extinct in New South Wales well before 2050 and that urgent government intervention is required to protect their habitat and address all other threats to their ongoing survival,” the report said.

But concerns go much beyond just the koalas. Australia’s environment is in an unsustainable state of decline and laws set up to protect unique species and habitats are ineffective, according to a recent review of the country’s environmental framework. The report suggested massive changes such as a new set of legally enforceable national standards and creating a new environmental regulator.

Australia is currently reviewing the status of 108 species, which could move to endangered or critically endangered, including reptiles, frogs, fish, mammals, and birds. After making it to the list, the species will now be assessed by a scientific committee, which will have to make a recommendation to the minister regarding its status.

Koalas are facing the threat of extinction after Australia’s forest fires, NGO claims

The forest fires in Australia have been extinguished and citizens across the country are trying to go back to normal, but the disaster and its consequences for wildlife are far from over. Many animals have been severely affected such as koalas, which are even facing the possibility of extinction, according to a report.

Credit WIkipedia Commons

The Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a wildlife conservation organization, said that at least 5,000 koalas have died because of the wildfires. That’s about 12% of the population of koalas in the New South Wales area, which the NGO said it’s an intentionally low calculation.

The real figures are probably much worse.

“Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow-moving and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely,” campaigner Josey Sharrad told CNN. “When fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live.”

Last year, the Australian Koala Foundation said “koalas may be functionally extinct,” meaning that the current generation of adults is insufficient to produce a new, functional generation. This was questioned by experts across-the-board, but the questions about the koalas’ fate remain standing.

New South Wales was the area most affected by the forest fires, with over 12 million acres of land burned out of the 45 million nationwide. This has essentially left koalas without a suitable habitat to live in, with the NGO suggesting to list the animals as an endangered species.

The red list of endangered species, managed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has kept the koala in the category of “vulnerable” since 2014, but the impact of the fires can justify to move it to the immediately superior category of “endangered.”

Placing the koalas on that category would help them recover from the devastating blow from the forest fires, according to IFAW’s report. At the same time, it would mean stronger penalties for any offenses that could harm them. “Our koalas only stand a chance if we help,” Sharrad said.

But the forest fires weren’t the first threat for koalas. They are highly vulnerable to climate change, food degradation, droughts, and deforestation, which have led to losing almost two-thirds of its population over the last three generations, according to a 2016 study.

“This rapid destruction of koala habitat, combined with climate change, is inflicting substantial stress and pushing the species towards extinction,” Sharrad said. “Reduction and fragmentation of koala habitat expose koalas to the added threats of vehicle strikes, dog attacks, stress and disease,” she added.

A team from the University of Newcastle (Australia) led by Ryan Witt has pointed out the need to launch a program to freeze koalas’ genetic material. The conservation of tissues and germ cells of koalas from various areas of the country would facilitate to study their diseases and carry out captive-assisted reproduction initiatives if needed.

If the loss of the koala population continues at the pace set by the latest fires, and climate models indicate that it will be this way or even worse, a significant genetic diversity could be lost, the researchers argued in an article in The Conversation.

The problem is not only that the fires caused a significant loss of the number of koalas, but also that the surviving populations will be more fragmented and isolated, with the danger of greater of the proliferation of hereditary diseases, Witt’s team said.

Koalas might not be functionally extinct — but they’re in huge trouble

There have been reports that 80% of the koalas’ habitat has been destroyed. If true, this could render the population functionally extinct. But the woes of the koalas are not new, and they’re not limited to the current wildfires, as some have suggested.

Image via Wikipedia.

Australia is experiencing record-breaking drought and bushfires. Deborah Tabart, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation (the largest non-profit organization dedicated to koala conservation) estimates that over 1,000 koalas have been killed because of the fires and more than 80% of their habitat has been destroyed. A number of recent articles from major publishers made it seem like this drove koalas to the brink of extinction by these wildfires — but that’s not exactly true.

There is no doubt that the wildfires are putting koalas under massive threat, subjecting them to even more environmental stress than usual. However, the ‘functionally extinct’ label came from earlier this year — in May, to be precise.

Back then, the Australian Koala Foundation dropped a press release stating the organization believes that “koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia” and that koala numbers could be as low as 80,000.

Functionally extinct means that the current generation of adults is insufficient to produce a new, functional generation. There are a few things to note here.

Koalas are indeed in major trouble (and we’ll get to that in a bit). However, the foundation never really explained how they got those numbers and why they believe koalas to be functionally extinct. Secondly, the press release was published at a delicate moment: right before Australia’s election, where climate change and its effects (such as increased drought and wildfires) was a key issue.

So understandably, it’s easy to link the current bushfires with the koala woes, but this would be unclear and misleading.

However, this doesn’t exactly mean ‘good news’ for koalas.

The world is currently undergoing a mass extinction, and even among current trends, Australia’s extinction rate is among the highest in the world. The koala, an animal which is synonymous with Australia’s image, is in severe decline, despite its beloved status.

It’s probably sufficient to produce healthy generations, but it is also true that once a koala population falls below a critical point it can no longer produce the next generation, leading to extinction.

The truth is, we don’t really know how many koalas there are left in the wild.

“To determine whether each population of koalas scattered across eastern Australia is functionally extinct would require a gargantuan effort,” wrote Christine Adams-Hosking, a conservationist at the University of Queensland, for The Conversation. “It’s incredibly difficult for scientists to get a full grasp on koala numbers across Australia, so categorizing the species as “functionally extinct” is difficult.”

The koala is in trouble. It’s listed as ‘Vulnerable’, but its true status might be significantly worse than that. Threatened by climate change and its effects, koalas will continue to decrease in numbers unless stronger action is taken. Even if they’re not functionally extinct, things don’t exactly look good for the adorable creatures. To date, the present “vulnerable” listing has not achieved any known positive results for koala populations, Adams-Hosking explains.

The threats to koalas remain present and intensifying. It’s not just climate change — deforestation and diseases also threaten koalas. We also know that koala populations in some inland regions affected by climate extremes such as severe droughts and heatwaves have declined by as much as 80%.

Koalas are just one piece of the puzzle. Their decline is synonymous with the decline of an entire ecosystem. For millions of years koalas have been a key part of the health of our eucalyptus forests by eating upper leaves, and on the forest floor, their droppings contribute to important nutrient recycling. Their known fossil records date back approximately 30 million years so they may have once been a food source for megafauna carnivores.

New study shows why Koalas hug trees

A new study conducted by Dr Michael Kearney from the University of Melbourne explains that koalas actually hug trees to regulate their body temperature.

This cute behaviour isn’t just a stage act, it’s quite important for koalas. In this study published in the  Royal Society journal Biology Letters showed that when it gets really hot, the animals go to the lower, cooler parts of the trees. They also pressed their bodies closer to the trunks, apparently hugging them. This is part of a wider research project investigating the effect of climate on land-dwelling animals in Australia, a country which experiences extreme heat waves year after year.

PhD student Natalie Brisco was studying koala behavior, and she noticed that in the winter, koalas tens to stay higher in the trees, eating the higher leaves. However, in the summertime, when the temperatures go through the roof, they always went lower.

“It looked like they were spread-eagled and uncomfortable; it seemed like the wrong thing to do.”

But the koalas knew what they were doing. Initial studies showed that on hot days, the lower parts of tree trunks were on average seven degrees cooler than the air.

“That’s what made us wonder if the koalas were using the trees as a heat sink,” said Dr Kearney.

So they grabbed a thermal camera, and took pictures of koalas on very hot days – and the results were clear.

Big trees have their own microclimates, which is increasingly important for protecting koalas and other animals from extreme heat waves. Dr Justin Welbergen from James Cook University says thermal images show exactly how animals can exploit these cooler microclimates in trees.

“This helps them to maximise their chances of survival during extreme heat events,” He told BBC News.

Other animals have other mechanisms of dealing with the heat: for example flying foxes spread saliva on their wings. Flying foxes are threatened by heat waves. In Queensland alone, one very hot day 45,500 killed 45.500 of them. Hopefully, with this kind of research, we can understand better how animals protect themselves against extreme heat, and ultimately take measures to protect them (plant certain species of trees in key areas, for example).

Scientific Reference: Tree-hugging koalas demonstrate a novel thermoregulatory mechanism for arboreal mammals

Mammals, half way extinct??

The previous 5 mass extinctions wiped out more than three quarters of the world’s animals, and if things continue to move in the same way, the same thing will happen in North America, according to a University of California, Berkeley, and Pennsylvania State University analysis.

a151-mammals_poster

Numerous scientists have warned that the direction things are moving in is way more dangerous than believed by most authorities, and the combined effect of habitat destruction, global warming and environmental degrading will lead to a global catastrophe, yet fully accurate estimations were not done, due to the inability to compare species that live today with species that live in the past. However, the researchers from the above mentioned universities teamed up in order to overcome that obstacle, and using data from three catalogs of mammal diversity they were able to conclude the study.

“The optimistic part of the study is that we haven’t come all that far on extinction in the past 10,000 years,” said co-author Anthony Barnosky, UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. “We have this pulse when humans had their first effect about 13,000 years ago, but diversity has remained pretty steady for about 10,000 years.”

In the last 100 or so years, however, “we are seeing a lot of geographic range reductions that are of a greater magnitude than we would expect, and we are seeing loss of subspecies and even a few species. So it looks like we are going into another one of these extinction events.”

But there are still things that can be done.

“I’m optimistic that, because we haven’t lost those species yet, if we redouble our conservation efforts we can stem the tide of extinctions and have those species around in the future,” he added.

Double our efforts to conserve species – do you really see that happening? I would be absolutely thrilled to see this happening, or even a less significant intensification, but it makes me sad to think how unlikely this is. Just this month massive distress calls were launched about koalas and siberian tigers. The thing is, we are responsible for this, and this is why it’s our responsibility to do something. Everytime mammals (and not only) had such problems, they would eventually get over it, but all that changed ~13.000 years ago, when humans entered the scene.

“The bottom line is, mammals in general were able to deal with these changes in the past. Only when humans arrive do the numbers fall off a cliff.”

That’s something to think about when you go to sleep at night, or when you’re complaining about bad weather.

Koalas in peril of extinction, due to habitat loss and an AIDS-like virus

The koala population has been going down for quite some while now, mostly due to habitat loss and the lack of laws to protect them, but now it seems they have a really, REALLY big problem. It’s recently been reported that koalas from the Queensland area (and not only) are dying from the spread of an AIDS-like virus, and if things keep going this way, they could be extinct in less than 15 years.

Koala Baby07RAM

”We’re seeing a 100 per cent infection rate in the populations we’re studying. On those figures, it should be considered a disease epidemic,” Australian Wildlife Hospital research director Jon Hanger said.

The big problem is that this retrovirus combines with the habitat loss and there already have been reported some local koala extinctions.

“‘We are losing the battle, and koala populations in smaller fragmented habitats are doomed to extinction. ‘We have hammered our biodiversity like you wouldn’t believe. If you look at a map of Australia on Google Earth you’ll see how few fragments of native vegetation are left across the continent. We have gone way beyond the tipping point for many of our ecosystems.”

Having looked at Google Earth I can say that this statement is not an exaggeration by any standards. He also pointed a finger at the “antiquated legislation” which is currently unable to provide any kind of protection to the little furry fellows.

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”They were written at a time when the main aim was to make it illegal to kill or collect koalas. They need to be urgently revised to factor in threats posed by climate change, the rapid spread of disease and urban development.”

It’s obvious that the needs and expectancies from the legislators have greatly increased, and hopefully they will see this and make the necessary steps. The Australian Wildlife Hospital and University of Queensland have published a progress report on the moving of young koala populations. The greatest distance traveled was 14km and the reproductive success was really high, but the relocated koalas have numerous problems to cope with. Feral dogs, competition for mates, clearing forests and droughts are just a part of what they will have to face.

As it turns out, the risk of extinction has been greatly misscalculated, underestimated by ~ 100 times ! This also raises more questions as 1 in 4 mammals, 1 in 3 amphibians and 1 in 10 birds are threatened with extinction; what happened if the mathematical model has been wrong here too??