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The plight to save Australia’s koalas

By: Reuters Editorial | 20 October 2020

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From disease to bushfires, these destructive forces could make New South Wales’ symbolic animal extinct by 2050. Rosanna Philpott reports.

In Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, there is the plight to save koalas.

Recent fires have ravaged their habitat.

But even before the fires, a government report said the species could be extinct by 2050.

At her home in the western suburbs of Sydney, Tracey is looking after a rescued koala family after urban development encroached their habitat.

“We are losing koalas from, with these new developments. There’s more vehicles in these areas which is koala core habitat. And then having people moving to these new developments they also have dogs. So we are having an increase of dog attacks.”

The Wildlife Information, Rescue, and Education Service volunteer is feeding the two young joey’s eucalyptus leaves to get them back to a healthy weight.

They were found underweight and in poor health.

“They know this area as, as their koala habitat and they do move around quite a lot so when they come back to that habitat, to that section of the habitat that was once there, is now being bulldozed and cleared for housing. While we do need housing to live in but there needs to be a balance and there needs to be a balance to ensure that these species survive.”

A mainstay of Australian cultural identity, koalas were thrust into the center of the national conversation after the country’s worst summer of bushfires in a generation killed or displaced more than 35,000 of the marsupials across the country.

That’s 10% of the population.

Kellie Leigh is the head of Science for Wildlife, a not-for-profit conservation organization.

“We are talking about species that have been around for millions of years, so looming extinction is not a good picture. And also if you want to try and reverse that trend it’s going to take a lot of time, you know, it’s not something you can change overnight, so it’s something that needs to be taken very seriously right now.”

Leigh’s team is using advanced methods to track koala movements and monitor populations in bushfire affected areas.

They also have a dog trained to follow the scent of koalas’ droppings.

“So overall the koalas have been declining for many years now which is a real area of concern. In these protected areas, you know, we’ve found that these populations that have been doing really well – young, growing populations and the main threats to them have been fires. And for a few years now we’ve always known it would be a threat here but we saw something the scale we have never imagined happen last summer. And so we really need to address how we manage fire in the protected areas now like that. Like a really key problem was that all the resources because there was so many fires, they had to go to conserving human life and human property, so there was nothing left to conserve wildlife in the national parks.”

Koala conservationists are focusing more than ever on cities as population growth in metropolises like Sydney drives demand to clear forests and make way for homes.

But it’s not just climate change, bushfires, and habitat destruction.

This rescue named Ernie lost his eye to another threat to the species: chlamydia. It’s pervasive in koala populations and just one of many forces putting their survival at risk.


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