Koalas are the biggest victims of the Australian fires that have been happening over the past few months. So much so that some scientific societies are already talking about these animals being practically extinct on this island continent.
One example is the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), which believes that there are currently no more than 80,000 koalas left in Australia, making them "virtually or functionally extinct". In the worst case, there could be even fewer koalas left than estimated, and the number could be reduced to as low as 43,000.
Other sources of information claim that the reality is not so dire and that it’s too soon to be alarmed. According to the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are still 300,000 koalas left.
Currently, the koala is listed as a "vulnerable" species, the lowest of all threat categories. However, based on its extensive research over the years, the AKF suggests that the conservation status of koala should be upgraded to "critically endangered". Since 2009, AKF has been monitoring 128 federal constituencies that fall within the range of koalas. A decade later, 41 of them show no signs of koalas.
In April 2012, the Australian government declared the koala as a "vulnerable species" in New South Wales and Queensland. Victoria and South Australia were removed from the list. Instead, the AKF believes that the koala should be included in all states. In AKF's view, there is no legislation that effectively and consistently protects koala habitat: "It is not necessarily because the legislation does not exist, but because there is not always the political will to implement, monitor and enforce such legislation".
Since koalas are not kept in zoos or natural sanctuaries, the responsibility for their conservation lies with the government, as well as their habitats.
Koalas are in serious decline and are suffering the effects of habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks, traffic accidents, and forest fires. Official figures suggest that 30% of the koala population has died since the fires began, which have been raging in Australia since September 2019.
Introducing koalas into other ecosystems is a bad idea
How could we save the remaining koalas in Australia? A citizen of Australia proposed to try to get koalas into New Zealand, a place where they could thrive, and where there are 30,000 hectares of eucalyptus.
Unfortunately, the government is not willing to carry out this initiative but has stated that it will try to control the fires so that the koalas can remain in their natural habitat.
At first glance, the idea of introducing koalas into another habitat seems like a good one, there are many elements to consider when introducing a new species into another ecosystem.
Luis Javier Palomo Muñoz, Professor of Animal Biology at the University of Malaga and member of the Spanish Society for the Conservation and Study of Mammals (SECEM), believes that the initiative is ill-advised: "There are no (and never have been) koalas in New Zealand, so it would be a totally inappropriate action. It would be a totally alien species in that habitat, an invasive and misplaced species, which could cause serious problems for the native fauna of New Zealand. There are no native mammals (except bats) on these islands and there are clear examples of the disaster that has been caused by the introduction of Australian species to these islands.”
The alternative continues L. Javier, is to reinforce the existing populations, in areas where there are currently koalas or where there were in recent times, and to restore the habitats burned down by the fires, although this is a very complicated and costly task: "The best thing would be to keep the specimens that can be rescued from the most affected areas in recovery centres where they can be kept and bred in captivity until they can be reintroduced into their original areas".
In general, introducing exotic species goes against the conservation of local biodiversity. For this reason, José María Rey Benayas, professor of life sciences at the University of Alcalá de Henares, believes that this type of action should only be resorted to in very extreme cases.
Furthermore, New Zealand is a leader in the eradication of exotic species and currently has a very ambitious eradication programme: "For this reason, the initiative to introduce the koala clashes head-on with these objectives," explains Rey Benayas.