Sept. 22, 2021, 5:31 PM +03
Nearly a third of Australia's koalas were wiped out in just the past three years, according to new figures released by a conservation group, though some experts say real numbers are hard to establish.
What's not in doubt, they agree, is that the animal's population is in decline as Australia confronts climate change and other issues.
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The nonprofit conservation group urged the government to do more about what it called a “disturbing trend."
It estimates the koala population to now be in the range of 32,000-58,000 — down from an estimated 46,000-82,000 in 2018.
It said the worst decline was seen in the southeastern state of New South Wales, where it estimates the numbers have dropped by as much as 41 percent. The foundation said every region across Australia saw a decline in population.
The conservation group doesn’t explicitly state how the data was obtained, but said it's the first organization to estimate koala numbers across the country. NBC News has reached out to the foundation for comment and for details on its methodology.
The koala, a herbivorous marsupial that lives mostly in eastern and southern regions of the country, has become synonymous with Australia around the world.
It was listed as a vulnerable species in parts of the country in 2012. Last June, a parliamentary inquiry determined that koalas in New South Wales could become extinct by 2050 unless the government immediately intervenes to protect them and their habitat.
Images of burned and thirsty koalas in charred trees and bushes became symbolic of the devastating toll of the catastrophic wildfires that swept large swaths of the country in late 2019 and early 2020, killing or displacing an estimated 3 billion total animals.
DEC. 23, 201900:29
Chris Dickman, a professor of ecology at the University of Sydney, said that although talk of a 30 percent decline in three years "is dramatic," it "does seem plausible."
"Field surveys and modeling indicate that koalas were in a worrying decline before the drought and megafires of 2019-20," he said. "Where the fires were severe and the forest canopy was burnt, it is difficult to see how any koalas could have survived for very long, and the rate of decline would have been increased."
But some experts said that while Australia's koala population endured a heavy toll in recent years, the real numbers are tricky to establish.
Corey Bradshaw, an ecology professor with Flinders University in Adelaide, told NBC News by phone Wednesday there is “no question the koalas are in trouble” as part of a long-term trend of population decline, but he questioned the numbers released by the Australian Koala Foundation.
He pointed to a 2016 paper that puts the population of koalas in Australia at 329,000 as a more authoritative assessment, although he conceded that number doesn’t account for the koalas lost in recent wildfires.
"There are a lot of fragmented small populations, a lot of inbreeding and a lot of disease,” he added.
Bradshaw described koalas as "inevitably stuffed" on Twitter.
Ben Moore, senior lecturer with the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment at Western Sydney University, also said the numbers released by the foundation are “very much on the low side.”
But, he said, the trend the figures illustrate is real and a “concern.”
“Every study of koala numbers consistently shows their numbers are declining,” he added. “Exactly the magnitude of the decline is hard to say.”
NOV. 15, 201904:22
Dr. Natasha Speight, lead researcher of the Koala Health Research Group at the University of Adelaide's School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences, said via email Wednesday that it is difficult to accurately estimate the numbers of koalas in wild populations, and hence the proportion of the entire population that has been lost.
But, she said, it's likely that the koala numbers in Australia have dramatically declined in the past three years, particularly due to the wildfires.
“Compounding this is the high number of koalas lost every year due to motor vehicle collisions, chlamydiosis and as a result of habitat loss,” Speight said, adding that there are concerns for the species' future.
She said there is a strong need for an official assessment of the numbers of koalas and their health status in each state across the country, to determine what measures need to be put in place to protect the animals and their habitat into the future.
In light of its report, the Australian Koala Foundation urged the government to do more to protect the species and put forward a koala protection act.
"I just think action is now imperative. I know that it can just sound like this endless story of death and destruction, but these figures are right. They're probably worse," the group's chair, Deborah Tabart, told Reuters Tuesday.
In June the Australian government called for public comment on a national recovery plan for the koalas in three regions of the country. Comments on the plan are due Friday.
According to the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, koalas in some regions of the country face increasing threats from issues including urban expansion, habitat loss, and their susceptibility to drought and climate change.
NBC News has reached out to the department for comment on the figures released by the Australian Koala Foundation.
Australia’s conservation efforts did see a boost last week when authorities said the bandicoot, a small furry marsupial, had been brought back from the brink of extinction on the country's mainland.