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Koalas are not "functionally extinct", but their population takes a major hit amid wildfires

Over 1,000 koalas are estimated to have lost their lives in the Australian wildfires, stoking fears that not enough is being done to protect the national icon.

Koalas are not "functionally extinct", but their population takes a major hit amid wildfires

Update: An earlier version of this story mentions "koalas are functionally extinct". The claim was later declared not entirely true. Therefore, we have updated the story.

As Australia attempts to get a handle on the bushfires raging across the nation, experts fear many koalas may already have been killed. Over 1,000 koalas are estimated to have lost their lives in the wildfires, stoking fears that not enough is being done to protect the national icon. The overwhelming number of koala deaths caused by prolonged drought, deforestation, and the recent bushfires have led animal campaigners to suspect that the species is now "functionally extinct". However, some researchers do not agree with that claim.

According to a report, some researchers believe it is difficult to measure the koala population and that it could be much higher than the one estimated by the Australian Koala Foundation. So no, they are not 'functionally extinct'.  



Meanwhile, speaking to Daily Mail Australia, Deborah Tabart OAM, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, revealed that over 1,000 koalas may have been killed in the last two months alone due to the bushfires and deforestation. "If we combine all of the estimated deaths of koalas in the bushfires, there could be 1,000 koalas that have been killed in the last two months. We know there are 31 koalas that have been killed in Port Macquarie, but I think that is not a high enough number. We think there are 18,000 koalas in NSW alone, so the bushfires have had a massive impact on their population," said Tabart, estimating that at least 350 koalas may have been killed in the Port Macquarie bushfires alone. 



A species is classified as "functionally extinct" when their population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem. While a portion of the remaining koala population could reproduce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely. According to CNN, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital corroborated Tabart's fears that the flames in and around Port Macquarie have dealt a deadly blow to the region's koala population. "In what is a national tragedy, the bushfires in and around Port Macquarie in November devastated a genetically diverse koala population. As many as 350 koalas have perished, with approximately 75% of the fireground footprint being prime koala habitat," the hospital stated.



Even if the koalas survive the wildfires, they are still at the risk of starving as deforestation and the flames have destroyed their main nutrient source: the eucalyptus tree. "Because of deforestation and now the bushfires, there is so little habitat left and trees with eucalyptus take months to grow back," said Tabart. Meanwhile, the Australia Zoo revealed that "uncontrolled habitat destruction" has left as little as 40,000 to 100,000 koalas remaining in the wild. The zoo claimed that aside from the deaths caused by bushfires, habitat clearing, dog attacks, and road accidents, the fur trade in America and Europe has claimed the lives of over 2.5 million koalas.



"We believe the wild population of koalas is critically threatened and in need of our protection," said the Australia Zoo. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species classifies the koala as an endangered species, some researchers have called into question the worrying claims about the species. Speaking to The Feed, Dr. Christine Hosking, a koala expert at the University of Queensland, stated that it's just not accurate to say that the marsupial is now "functionally extinct."



"In ecology, it's always grey -- there's never black and white because koalas are very hard to track and count. But to say they're functionally extinct all over Australia, you can't possibly say that, because in some places they're doing well -- in some places they're overabundant," said Hosking. Although she confirmed that the recent bushfires have taken a significant toll on local populations, Hosking claimed it would be some time before we know just how detrimental the flames have been to the koala population. 


"In the case of the bushfires, we need to wait a bit longer -- the fires are still burning. We need to wait until the fires are finished, and then we can map the burnt areas with a scientific approach, and speak to local experts who know how many koalas were in those areas. As trees grow back, we'll have to look at how many koalas come back. It's certainly been devastating for some populations in those bush areas, but you couldn't really quantify it yet. It will take a few years," she said.


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