Undoubtedly, koalas are one of the cutest animals living in Australia. They are loved by millions, unique to the continent and a major tourist attraction. However, though they get much of attention & love, the fact that they are in dire need of help to secure their survival is unknown too many. Xixi Zou, DiM’s intern, wanted to know more and found some disturbing facts.
Equally endangered: Gorilla & Koala
Koalas are famous Australian icons. Year in, year out they have attracted millions of international tourists who wouldn’t leave Australia without having visited them in wildlife centres or having seen them in the wild for decades. Their cute eyes and shape have made them symbolic for the Australian bush. Numerous koalas became ambassadors for Australia in form of cute little soft toys that travelled back home with international tourists’ pockets when heading back home. In fact, toy koalas are one of the top ten most favourite Australian souvenirs.
However, the surprising truth is that the lives of these sleepy little marsupials that almost exclusively feed on eucalypt leaves are currently threatened. Wildlife organisations estimate that koalas in NSW and Queensland are going to vanish by 2050 if nothing will be done. Koalas have been recognised as a vulnerable species by international organisations since 2016. It is well acknowledged that mountain gorillas, Asian elephants and rhino are a series of endangered species. However, how many of us know about the fact that koalas are endangered in Australia.
An area half of the size of Germany affected
.The bushfire in 2019 caused a serious challenge for koalas, which has made them lose their habitat, get badly injured and die. Based on the statistics, the bushfires have impacted around 45 million acres and nearly 10000 koalas have died in this disaster.
Are 45 million acres to abstract for you? Let’s break them down: 45 million acres equal to 182 thousand square kilometers which itself is nearly equal to half the area of Germany (which by the way is around 357 thousand square kilometers). There are only 329.000 koalas left in Australia and more than 3% of koalas were killed by the bushfire. Now, let’s do the maths. If year by year the same happens, if year by year more than 3% of the koala population gets wiped out, there is no doubt that it will be extinct within the next three decades.
Two of the reasons why koalas are so vulnerable during, for example, a bushfire is that they cannot move very quickly and rely on the trees which are easy to be burnt in the bushfire. As a result, they cannot find an appropriate habitat to sleep, feed and get water, which leads to devastating impacts on the population of koalas. 2019’s bushfires have brought koalas into public spotlight. However, the threat of koala elimination in Australia has been a challenge for a long time due to tree-clearing and logging – not bushfires.
Stress impacts on a koala’s immune system
What is more, most Australians have not realised that some diseases are fatal to unique marsupial. Koalas rely on their trees. It’s where they live, eat and sleep. The overwhelming tree-clearing, logging and climate change contribute to a huge concern about the rapid loss of koalas habitats. Losing their habitat more and more, trigger koalas to move around the ground to find a new home. On their way to find new habitats, they become extremely vulnerable to threats like cars or fatal bacterias such as Chlamydia. Chlamydia is a disease that has impacted thousands of koalas and is, in fact, the most deadliest for them causing symptoms such as bladder inflammation, blindness and death.
A reason why they are easy to get infected on the roads is their vulnerable immune function. When they feel anxious and stressed, their more vulnerable immune increases the risk of attracting a Chlamydia infection. Some koalas may not have symptoms or show only mild ones, but they are still contagious.
Treating a koala’s disease may cause other issues
Therefore, even if there is no bushfire, the loss of their original habitat is still a threat to their health and life due to human activities and climate change. And the data shows that nearly half of all koalas in Australia have experienced a Chlamydia infection. However, even if they are cured, the antibiotics treatment still leads to negative impacts on the koalas, which may change the diet or lose weight.
“For over two decades, scientists have brought wild koalas into wildlife hospitals to treat their chlamydia with antibiotics. The downside is that the antibiotics may be altering those gut microbes that allow koalas to eat eucalyptus,” explains Katherine Dahlhausen, University of California
Other threats to koalas include getting hit by cars and attacked by dogs during the trip to find a new habitat or moving around in breeding season. As a matter of fact, if none of the current circumstances in an endangered koala’s life changes, not only will a unique Australian icon vanish and leave a whole in Australia’s unique ecosystem. It will also have a dire impact on Australia’s tourism and economy.
Further reading and information
Xixi has also written an opinion piece discussing protections of koalas from both individual and institutional level. You can read it here.
Want to learn more about this issue? Read the articles below to hear from professional opinions!
Copyright Deutsche in Melbourne 2020