Nearly a third of Australia’s koala population is gone after bushfires, drought, and heat waves in recent years have decimated the marsupials.
The Australia Koala Foundation, an organisation that keeps track of koala numbers, said Tuesday that the total population of koalas now numbers somewhere between 32,000 and 58,000 animals. That’s a serious decline from 2018, when the foundation estimated koala numbers were between 46,000 to 82,000.
In specific parts of Australia, the decline is even more stark: The state of New South Wales’ koala population has gone down by more than 41% over the past three years. Every area of the country, the foundation said, saw a decline in population. Only one of Australia’s 151 electoral districts has more than 5,000 animals, while koalas are now totally extinct in 47 electorates. Several electoral districts, the foundation noted, have just handful of animals left.
In a release, Deborah Tabart, chair of the foundation, pinned the decline in koalas to a number of different factors. But many of those factors have been supercharged by climate change.
“The terrible bushfires of 2019-20 of course contributed to this outcome, Tabart said. “However, they are certainly not the only reason we are seeing Koala populations on the decline. We have witnessed a drastic decrease in inland populations because of drought, heat waves, and lack of water for Koalas to drink. I have seen some landscapes that look like the moon with dead and dying trees everywhere.”
Experts estimate the 2019-20 bushfires killed or displaced almost 3 billion animals across Australia, including some 143 million mammals like koalas. Climate change is increasing the odds of severe fire weather in recent decades. Researchers found that the extreme heat that fuelled the bushfire season from hell was twice as likely due to climate change. Meanwhile, 2020 was the country’s fourth-hottest year on record, and experts have said that the little rainfall Australia has seen is “part of a long-term drying trend.”
“What we’re concerned about is places like western New South Wales where the drought over the last 10 years has just had this cumulative effect — river systems completely dry for years, river red gums, which are the lifeblood of koalas, dead,” Tabart told Reuters in an interview. Koalas are native only to Australia, which means that they’ve been directly exposed to the tumultuous changes the climate crisis is enacting on the continent.
Tabart also noted that land clearing across Australia for “farming, housing development, and mining” are an enormous threat to koala habitat, and stopping land clearing will be crucial to help preserving koala populations. But reducing carbon emissions globally is a necessary step to protect koalas (to say nothing of us).
“I just think action is now imperative,” she continued. “I know that it can just sound like this endless story of dearth and destruction, but these figures are right. They’re probably worse.”