Koalas on Australia's East Coast Are Officially Endangered

Australia lost 30% of its koala population in just three years.

Wild Koala in Australia
Henry Cook / Getty Images

Officials in Australia have listed the koala as endangered on much of the east coast, saying the effects of drought, bushfires, and habitat loss have led to the marsupials’ dwindling numbers.

Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced the government is boosting protection for koalas in New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory by changing their status from vulnerable to endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.

The decision to change the listing comes just about a decade after koala populations in those areas were listed as vulnerable under the EPBC Act in May 2012. Listing them as endangered means they are believed to be under a much more serious risk and are closer to extinction.

“Together we can ensure a healthy future for the koala and this decision, along with the total $74 million [$53 million U.S.] we have committed to koalas since 2019 will play a key role in that process,” Ley said in making the announcement.

“The new listing highlights the challenges the species is facing and ensures that all assessments under the Act will be considered not only in terms of their local impacts, but with regard to the wider koala population.” 

In March 2020, three animal welfare groups—the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Humane Society International (HSI), and WWF-Australia—nominated the koala to be listed as endangered to the federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee.

The groups estimated that in Queensland alone, the koala population dropped by at least 50% since 2001 due to deforestation, drought, and fires and that up to 62% of the New South Wales koala population has disappeared over the same period.

A Turning Point for Koalas

Although conservation groups are happy with the decision, they believe that it may have come too late.

“This decision is a double-edged sword. We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we are at risk of losing a national icon. If we can’t protect an iconic species endemic to Australia, what chance do lesser known but no less important species have?” IFAW Wildlife Campaign Manager Josey Sharrad said.

“The bushfires were the final straw. This must be a wake-up call to Australia and the government to move much faster to protect critical habitat from development and land-clearing and seriously address the impacts of climate change.”

Australia lost 30% of its koala population in just three years, according to a report from the Australia Koala Foundation. Populations are estimated to be between 32,000 and 57,920, which is down from 45,745 to 82,170 in 2018.

Australian officials will now ask for states’ approval to begin working on a national recovery plan.

WWF-Australia conservation scientist Stuart Blanch called on federal and state governments to commit to doubling koala numbers on the east coast by 2050. He said that the new endangered classification could be a turning point for koalas.

“Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline,” Blanch said. 

“Today’s decision is welcome, but it won’t stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it’s accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes.”

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  1. Australian Government, "Increased Protection for Koalas."

  2. WWF-Australia, "Koala endangered listing is a grim but important decision."

  3. Australian Koala Foundation, "Media Release."