No, Koalas aren’t functionally extinct yet
As koalas suffer in the Australian bushfires, misinformation has spread about their demise. Here’s what we know.
AUSTRALIA IS IN the midst of a catastrophic and unprecedented early fire season. As dozens of bushfires rage up the country’s eastern coast, from Sydney to Byron Bay, incinerating houses, forest, and even marshland, one of Australia’s most iconic animals has taken center stage in headlines.
The plight of the defenseless animals has sparked a flurry of concern—and confusion. Over the weekend, erroneous declarations that the animals have lost most of their habitat and are “functionally extinct” made the rounds in headlines and on social media, illustrating just how quickly misinformation can spread in times of crisis.
Why are koalas suffering so much in this fire season?
When it comes to fire, everything seems to be stacked against koalas. Their only real defense is climbing higher into the eucalyptus trees where they make their homes—little defense at all in a raging forest fire.
How many koalas are left?
Have the fires really decimated 80 percent of koala habitat?
No. Koalas’ range is large, extending along Australia’s entire Eastern coast. The recent bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland cover about a million hectares, Fisher says (and some estimates indicate as many as 2.5 million hectares), but the area of forest in eastern Australia where koalas can live is more than 100 million hectares.
Are koalas ‘functionally extinct?’
Koalas are not bears—they’re marsupials. Learn about koalas’ unique traits, including six opposable “thumbs,” downward-facing pouches, and an ability to sleep nearly all day in tree branches.
The headlines claiming that koalas are functionally extinct appear to be based on a claim from a koala conservation group earlier in 2019. Scientists disputed it then and continue to dispute it now: “It is threatened in some parts of its range and not in others,” says Diana Fisher, associate professor in the school of biological sciences at the University of Queensland.
So what’s next?
In the meantime, The Koala Hospital of Port Macquarie, located about 250 miles north of Sydney in one of the most fire-affected zones, is actively rescuing and treating koalas. To date, they’ve treated at least 22, according to the New York Times.
Adams-Hosking and David Bowman, the landscape fire expert, both argue that in addition to protecting land, it’s vital to start looking at rewilding and relocating koalas. “We’ve got to get with the program and start adapting, says Bowman. “If we want koalas, we’ve got to look after them. We need to step up.”
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Featured Image Credits: Pixabay
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