Saving a national icon: who’s doing what to combat koala extinction

“Koalas are seen as an impediment to progress… when I say progress, I’m basically just talking about people making money and new development. It’s just a priority thing and koalas are not a priority even though the governments all say that they are,” Debbie Pointing, the president of Koala Action Group in South East Queensland, says. 

Matilda the koala at Koala Gardens. Photo: Supplied by Katrina Jeffery

A recent parliamentary report shows that “Australia has one of the world’s worst records for the extinction and lack of protection for threatened fauna and is ranked second (after Indonesia) in the world for ongoing biodiversity loss”. The key drivers of faunal extinction in Australia are recognised as habitat loss, invasive species, changes in fire management, climate change and disease. The same report lists koalas as an example of a previously abundant species with numbers around 10 million during European settlement which have since diminished to an estimated figure of 47,860 in the wild. 

Koalas are only found in the wild in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. Wildlife conservation groups across these states are planting trees to try and restore koala habitats. In Tuckurimba, New South Wales, a private landowner named Katrina Jeffery began land revegetation on her property in 2011 which led to the inception of Koala Gardens in 2015.  

 “There’s really only one threat, and that’s the loss of habitat, and everything else that we’re dealing with and battling with… is the result of habitat loss,” she says. 

Jeffery says common threats, such as being hit by cars and being attacked by dogs, all relate back to habitat loss because “if koalas had enough habitat, they wouldn’t be on the ground in the first place”.  

Koala populations in New South Wales have also been affected by the 2019 drought leading up to the 2019-20 bushfires. This has exacerbated many health problems for the local koalas in Tuckurimba. 

How planting trees helps

One of the health problems koalas face in New South Wales and Queensland is chlamydia. Research funded by the Queensland government’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection shows that chlamydia has a stress component to it which “increases susceptibility to infection” such as keratoconjunctivitis (eye infections) and cystitis (also called “wet bottom” or “dirty tail”). 

Jeffery focuses on showing private landowners that they have got the power to make a difference and save koalas by planting trees. 

Koalas in the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales and Queensland were listed as vulnerable to extinction in 2012 under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. But a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund shows that, since the 2012 listing, koala habitat destruction has increased by 7 per cent in Queensland as a result of land clearing for livestock pasture and by 32 per cent in New South Wales due to forestry operations.  

The worsening situation led to a report from the Parliament of New South Wales in June last year which found that, without government intervention and steps towards habitat protection, “the koala will become extinct in New South Wales before 2050”. 

Recent research into the number of extinct species in Australia since European settlement in 1788 now concludes that 100 endemic species have been listed as extinct. It also states that mammals have experienced “the highest proportional rate of extinction”.  

Revegetation is important because koalas are territorial animals and require a home range of many trees, Kirby Leary, a wildlife guide at the Koala Clancy Foundation in Victoria, explains. This has become difficult for them as a result of land clearing for farming and forestry.  

Climate change has further increased the number of trees that koalas need because the leaves have lost their nutritional value. Koalas are on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. The IUCN says koalas have a limited ability to adapt to climate change because “increasing atmospheric CO2 levels will reduce the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves … (and) koalas may no longer be able to meet their nutritional demands, resulting in malnutrition and starvation”.  

Leary is also concerned about this. “Koalas are relying on a eucalyptus leaf which provides very little nutrients for them and it also contains a toxin called phenol,” she says. “As the climate is warming and there’s more CO2 in the atmosphere, this chemical is also becoming more dominant in the leaf and the nutritional value is dropping. So, they’re having to eat more … and the more they have to eat, the more toxin they have to process. So, this is often resulting in a shorter life span”.  

A shorter life span, especially for a female, means she will have fewer joeys which can lead to a gradual population decrease. Longer droughts and longer heatwaves related to climate change also negatively impact the population.  

The IUCN says less rainfall and longer droughts can force koalas to leave the safety of their trees in search of water and a new home, making them vulnerable to predators and traffic. 

The Koala Clancy Foundation works with local landowners in Victoria’s Western Plains area, including the You Yangs and Brisbane Ranges, to plant native trees on their properties.  

Melbourne Water provides grants for landowners wanting to plant streamside koala vegetation, and the Koala Clancy Foundation assists landowners with these grant applications to gain funding for tree planting on their properties. In 2020, the foundation planted 20,000 trees despite not being able to run its usual volunteer program as a result of coronavirus. 

Why weeds are harmful

But not all habitat destruction is the result of land clearing. Habitat loss can also be attributed to invasive species. Boneseed or Chrysanthemoides monilifera subspecies monilifera is a South African weed which was introduced to Australia as an ornamental bush in the 1850s.  

CRC Weed Management regards it as “one of the worst weeds in Australia because of its invasiveness, potential for spread, and economic and environmental impacts”. Boneseed is considered an aggressive invader of native bushland and although it does grow in parts of South Australia, Tasmania and New South Wales, it is prolific in Victoria along the Mornington Peninsula and in the You Yangs.  

The Koala Clancy Foundation is also involved in removing boneseed to open up more native habitat for koalas. “The less vegetation that’s on the ground, the better for them, and boneseed tends to grow quite thick,” Leary says. “Often when the trees are surrounded by the boneseed, koalas will stop using them. So, the more boneseed we remove, the more trees they have available to them.”

Precious population

The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act of 2012 does not recognise koalas in Victoria as a vulnerable species. Leary says that this is because Victoria has a few overabundant populations which can make the numbers seem higher than they really are. “It skews the data and it’s a bit unrealistic because if you have an overabundant population somewhere, that doesn’t help koalas anywhere else because they’re not connected,” she says.

The EPBC Act also does not classify the koala population on Kangaroo Island as vulnerable to extinction. The Department for Environment and Water of South Australia states that: “Koalas are not native to Kangaroo Island but have thrived there since 18 from Victoria were released on the island in the early 1920s. This was a response to the decline in koala numbers in the south-east of the state caused by hunting for the fur trade.”

These koalas are crucial because they are the only chlamydia-free koala population in South Australia, and possibly Australia, and also have low rates of other diseases like Koala Retrovirus (KoRV) that affect many mainland populations. Jim Geddes, the co-owner of Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, says that the sanctuary sent 28 koalas to Cleland Wildlife Park during the 2019-20 bushfire crisis to create a disease-negative colony on the mainland. Cleland Wildlife Park referred to these koalas as the “disease-free insurance population” whose offspring “may become part of a rewilding program in future years”. 

Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary is a wildlife conservancy on western Kangaroo Island which funds itself from eco-tourism. Geddes says it has a very simple philosophy of “wildlife in the wild” and that the sanctuary seldom intervenes with the wildlife.  

The exceptions are destroying invasive species such as the feral pigs which breed rapidly and damage vegetation, as well as planting trees to create better wildlife habitat. International sanctuary volunteers used to undertake habitat rehabilitation through native tree planting and removing weeds. This was before the 2019-20 bushfires destroyed around 97 per cent of Geddes’s 5000-acre property and all of the infrastructure on it.  

Although Covid-19 has prevented volunteers from arriving and halted domestic tourism, the sanctuary planted more than 5000 trees in 2020, which is far more than would occur in a normal year. This was a result of fundraising efforts and local volunteers helping to revegetate the property.  

The World Wildlife Fund report on the impact of the 2019-20 bushfires indicates that the fires killed more than 61,000 koalas, prompting conservation groups to nominate them for a status change to endangered on the Finalised Priority Assessment List. Debbie Pointing, the president of Koala Action Group in the Redlands, Queensland, is involved in legislation surrounding koalas.  

Status is crucial

In October 2020, Pointing sent a petition to the state Labor government asking for koalas to be listed as critically endangered. Pointing is involved in educating politicians about koala protection because they are key decision-makers. “It’s a critical part of what our group needs to do,” she says. “I deal mostly with our councillors, local representatives, and then I also liaise with state representatives and to a degree, the federal representatives.”

Pointing also works with the Redlands Council to identify grassy areas alongside waterways, where volunteers then plant the native trees. She says there is a high disease rate in the Redlands because of koala chlamydia. 

Revegetation is vital, but it is clear that protection policies and legislation surrounding koalas also need change.  


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