Australia wants to save the koala

Pictures of burning koalas spread around the world two years ago. Tens of thousands of marsupials have fallen victim to devastating bushfires in eastern Australia. However, large swaths of forest have since been cleared – and the protest of many environmental and animal rights activists has gone unheeded.

Meanwhile, koalas, such as kangaroos, which are the icons of Australia and can only be found there, have been so decimated that the Australian government also surrendered and declared its population in the eastern states of New South Wales, the Australian capital. Territory and Queensland as “Endangered” (“Endangered”).

Previously, koalas were classified as “vulnerable” at the lower level. Environment Secretary Susan Lee followed up on a recommendation from the Scientific Committee on Endangered Species.

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The government wants to spend A$50 million (€31 million) over the next four years to protect the animals. “We are taking unprecedented measures to protect koalas and collaborating with scientists, medical researchers, veterinarians, communities, states, local governments and indigenous peoples,” Lai said.

50% of animals are infected with chlamydia

In addition to deforestation and wildfires, climate change, dog attacks, traffic accidents, and bacterial chlamydia infections are putting the marsupials of the fifth continent at risk. In southeast Queensland and New South Wales in particular, more than 50 per cent of the koala population is infected with chlamydia.

As a result, animals can become sterile and may even die. “Unfortunately, koala populations, particularly in New South Wales, were in trouble ahead of the 2019-2020 black summer bushfires,” said Alison Kelly, chair of the animal rights group Friends of Koalas.

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Many koalas died in devastating bushfires in 2019 and 2020. Or survived severe burns.
© Saeed Khan/AFP

A report by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) already caused an uproar last September. At the time, it reported that koala numbers across Australia have fallen by 30 percent since 2018. There may now be fewer than 60,000 koalas in Australia, according to the organization — between 32,000 and 58,000, the Aga Khan Foundation believes.

Although these are only estimates, it is safe to say that the 2019/20 wildfires alone contributed to the animals’ decline. According to the animal welfare organization WWF, about 60,000 koalas are said to have died in the intense fires.

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According to the Aga Khan Foundation, the situation in the state of New South Wales, where Sydney is also located, is very poor. The numbers there are said to have fallen by more than 40 per cent. But many other koala areas in Australia have also seen a decline.

“Some areas have an estimated remaining population of only five to 10 koalas,” the Aga Khan Foundation said in a statement. However, there are no official figures from the government. An inventory – a kind of “enumeration” of koalas – is said to be in preparation.

Koalas were hunted until 1927

The potentially significant decline in koala numbers is not unique to history. Beutler had to come to terms with a severe recession before. While millions of koalas inhabited the fifth continent 250 years ago, marsupials were ruthlessly hunted around 1900 for their fluffy, attractive fur to the point that they were on the verge of extinction.

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Things did not begin to appear again until the practice was eventually outlawed in New South Wales, South Australia, and Victoria in the early 1900s. In Queensland, hunting did not stop until 1927.

Animal rights activists such as Alison Kelly now hope that the decision to classify koalas as “endangered” will shake people, and above all politics. She said the species’ survival was now so threatened that “urgent action must be taken”.

In order to soon improve the condition of the koala, it is not enough to count the animals. Among other things, environmental organizations and researchers are calling for a halt to deforestation and more forest corridors, as habitats are now highly fragmented or separated from one another. In the worst case, experts fear that koalas could become extinct forever by 2050. A new vaccine against chlamydia infection has been giving some hope since October. Meanwhile, the new vaccine has passed the first two stages of testing and proven to be safe and effective.

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