Koala numbers down

Population in Australia may be as Low as 40,000, says Australian Koala Foundation

supplied by Australian Koala Foundation
ustralia's koala population has dropped to less than 80,000 and may be as low as 40,000 - the lowest estimates ever publicly quoted - according to the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), an Australian not-for-profit organization that sponsors scientific research on the island continent's environment. The AKF contends that if the downward population trend continues, koalas could be extinct in the wild within three koala generations, or approximately 30 years.
The AKF maintains that the large and continuing loss of prime koala habitat is the main reason for the decline.
The findings are based on data collected by a new satellite mapping system - the Koala Habitat Atlas Project - developed by the foundation. The project uses computer technology, satellite imagery, and geographic information systems combined with direct field observation to pinpoint prime koala habitat throughout Australia. The resulting habitat maps are being offered to government agencies and developers. The AKF says it has spent nearly one million dollars (Australian) on the program and on other research.
Australia was once home to millions of koalas - one of the country's best-known national symbols. Koalas are furry, slow-moving marsupials that are often, mistakenly, called "bears." With the arrival of European settlers, slaughter of the animals for their pelts quickly reduced their numbers. A nadir of sorts occurred in the 1920s when three million koalas were killed. Australia then passed legislation banning the trade and export of pelts.
Now, according to AKF Executive Director Deborah Tabart, koalas face an even more dismal fate as a result of habitat destruction. Koalas depend solely on eucalyptus trees for food and shelter. The foundation asserts that hundreds of thousands of such acreage has been destroyed in the past 20 years and destruction continues virtually unabated as the human population expands into the areas where koalas live.
Further hampering preservation efforts is the scarcity of reliable statistical data with which to measure the koala population. Tabart notes that when she first joined the foundation in 1986, estimates placed the population at approximately 400,000. She soon learned, however, that the number was only a guess and that until the foundation began its work, no solid numbers on koala depletion, habitat or migration existed.
To bolster its efforts, the AKF set out to establish credible statistical evidence on the koala. Since it is an independent organization free of ties to government or developers, the foundation defends its numbers as the only reliable data available. Already the information provided by the mapping project has helped preserve habitat. In 1992, developers and government officials used the AKF's data in deciding to divert a major highway around a critical koala habitat area in southeast Queensland. Recent developments, however, indicate that the highway, the Eastern Corridor Tollway, may yet be built as originally planned.
Besides the destruction of habitat, koalas also face other threats. Approximately 4,000 koalas are killed annually by dogs and cats, predators that never served as a threat to the koala until their introduction to Australia by Western settlers. Further, many others are killed or injured on the roads that traverse the bushland where koalas live.
Referring to the lack of legislation protecting habitat - and with almost no efforts by the current Australian government to preserve remaining stands of eucalyptus (or gumleaf) trees - Tabart warns that there is little time left to reverse the population's decline.
In a statement issued by the foundation, she noted, "The koala population is being severely depleted. We can't just replant eucalyptus trees after habitat is destroyed - a firm plan for habitat protection is the only way to conserve the species in the wild. We need to understand how seriously this national symbol has come under threat, acknowledge the causes and start to make changes."