The forest fires in Australia have been extinguished and citizens across the country are trying to go back to normal, but the disaster and its consequences for wildlife are far from over. Many animals have been severely affected such as koalas, which are even facing the possibility of extinction, according to a report.
The Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), a wildlife conservation organization, said that at least 5,000 koalas have died because of the wildfires. That’s about 12% of the population of koalas in the New South Wales area, which the NGO said it’s an intentionally low calculation.
The real figures are probably much worse.
“Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow-moving and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely,” campaigner Josey Sharrad told CNN. “When fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live.”
Last year, the Australian Koala Foundation said “koalas may be functionally extinct,” meaning that the current generation of adults is insufficient to produce a new, functional generation. This was questioned by experts across-the-board, but the questions about the koalas’ fate remain standing.
New South Wales was the area most affected by the forest fires, with over 12 million acres of land burned out of the 45 million nationwide. This has essentially left koalas without a suitable habitat to live in, with the NGO suggesting to list the animals as an endangered species.
The red list of endangered species, managed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), has kept the koala in the category of “vulnerable” since 2014, but the impact of the fires can justify to move it to the immediately superior category of “endangered.”
Placing the koalas on that category would help them recover from the devastating blow from the forest fires, according to IFAW’s report. At the same time, it would mean stronger penalties for any offenses that could harm them. “Our koalas only stand a chance if we help,” Sharrad said.
But the forest fires weren’t the first threat for koalas. They are highly vulnerable to climate change, food degradation, droughts, and deforestation, which have led to losing almost two-thirds of its population over the last three generations, according to a 2016 study.
“This rapid destruction of koala habitat, combined with climate change, is inflicting substantial stress and pushing the species towards extinction,” Sharrad said. “Reduction and fragmentation of koala habitat expose koalas to the added threats of vehicle strikes, dog attacks, stress and disease,” she added.
A team from the University of Newcastle (Australia) led by Ryan Witt has pointed out the need to launch a program to freeze koalas’ genetic material. The conservation of tissues and germ cells of koalas from various areas of the country would facilitate to study their diseases and carry out captive-assisted reproduction initiatives if needed.
If the loss of the koala population continues at the pace set by the latest fires, and climate models indicate that it will be this way or even worse, a significant genetic diversity could be lost, the researchers argued in an article in The Conversation.
The problem is not only that the fires caused a significant loss of the number of koalas, but also that the surviving populations will be more fragmented and isolated, with the danger of greater of the proliferation of hereditary diseases, Witt’s team said.