Koalas are in trouble. The Australian government said Friday that koalas are now an endangered species in two states, due in large part to devastating bushfires, drought, and heat waves that have hit the country in the past few years.
Australia’s environment ministry is changing the status of koalas in New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory from protected to endangered. While the new classification doesn’t mandate any additional action from the government, Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Australia was developing a conservation plan and would now factor in the impacts to koalas when deciding land permits.
“The new listing highlights the challenges the species is facing,” Ley said in a statement to press. “Together we can ensure a healthy future for the koala and this decision…will play a key role in that process.”
Research published in September by the Australia Koala Foundation found that koala populations have dropped by a third overall in just three years, going from between 46,000 and 82,000 animals in 2018 to between 32,000 and 58,000 in 2021. In some Australian states, including the ones where koalas are newly endangered, the numbers are even more dire: New South Wales has seen its population decrease 41% since 2018. A separate government report predicted that koalas in New South Wales could be extinct by 2050 if action isn’t taken.
There are various factors contributing to the koalas’ decline — many of them supercharged by climate change. It’s estimated that the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires killed around 143 million mammals across Australia, including thousands of koalas; research has definitively linked the heat that juiced up those wildfires to climate change. Drought has also hit the country hard in recent years, making it difficult for koalas to find drinking water. 2020 was Australia’s fourth-hottest year on record, while experts have said the little rainfall the country has seen in recent years is part of a longer-term trend.
There are other, non-climate threats facing the koalas. Chlamydia is widespread in the koala population, and it’s estimated that 50% of koalas carry the disease. The infection is much more serious for these little guys than it is for humans, and can be life-threatening. (In October, scientists launched an experimental trial of a vaccine that could hopefully help the koala population beat the disease.) A boom in land clearing and deforestation has also been devastating to the koalas.
Some activists say that the government’s actions come too little, too late. The switch to endangered status “doesn’t mean anything,” Deborah Tabart, who chairs the Australian Koala Foundation, told the New York Times. The government, she said, “may be offering our koalas a nice new word, but behind all the photo opportunities and political rhetoric they continue to approve the destruction of the koala habitat. If the clearing of the koala habitat continues, a further status change is imminent — from endangered to extinct.”