Koalas: Going, Going…….
Koalas have been listed as a threatened species in NSW under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act. This means that unless action is undertaken, they are likely to go extinct in the wild in many areas of NSW within the next 50 years. Scientific studies have backed this listing with research by the NSW Government finding that koalas have undergone a 26% decline over three generations (15-21 years). Such declines are not sustainable. Within the Hastings-Macleay region, research by the Koala Recovery Partnership, using real world data provided by the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, and population estimates by koala consultants (BioLink, 2012) showed that koalas are also experiencing decline rates almost identical to that predicted by other studies. This means the real possibility of functional extinction (ie where the animals are still present but in such low numbers that their gene pool is now insufficient for a healthy population and they no longer play a role in ecosystem functioning), could occur within 50 years. This has many people gravely concerned that their children will not know the pleasure of sighting wild koalas or hearing their charismatic bellows on a warm evening.
Recovering declining populations becomes increasingly difficult as time goes on. This is because populations have become so fragmented, are often suffering disease because of the increased stresses and support a reduced gene pool thus further hampering recovery efforts. Population modelling undertaken for the Hastings-Macleay Region suggests the next five years will be critical to koala conservation. Of further concern is that many koalas are infertile (from diseases such as Chlamydia). As well, ‘extinction debts’ (where koala numbers have not yet adjusted to reduced levels of available habitat) and background factors such as increasing drought/heat that may also exacerbate disease.