Koala numbers down
supplied by Australian Koala Foundation
Population in Australia may be as Low as 40,000, says Australian Koala
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."