Australia is in the midst of a catastrophic and unprecedented early fire season. As dozens of bushfires rage up the country’s eastern coast, from Sydney to Byron Bay, incinerating houses, forest, and even marshland, one of Australia’s most iconic animals has taken center stage in headlines.
Images of burned, dying koalas have emerged as a symbol of the fire’s devastating toll. “They’re such helpless little things,” says Christine Adams-Hosking, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia. “A bird can fly, a kangaroo can hop very fast, but koalas are so slow. They basically just get stuck where they are.”
The plight of the defenseless animals has sparked a flurry of concern—and confusion. Over the weekend, erroneous declarations that the animals have lost most of their habitat and are “functionally extinct” made the rounds in headlines and on social media, illustrating just how quickly misinformation can spread in times of crisis.
Koalas are considered vulnerable to extinction—just a step above endangered—and reports indicate that between 350 and a thousand koalas have been found dead so far in fire-devastated zones of northern New South Wales.
But, experts say, we are not looking at the death of a species—yet. “We’re not going to see koalas go extinct this fast,” says Chris Johnson, professor of wildlife conservation at the University of Tasmania. “Koala populations will continue to decline because of lots of interacting reasons, but we’re not at the point where one event could take them out.”
Here’s the current situation:
Why are koalas suffering so much in this fire season?
When it comes to fire, everything seems to be stacked against koalas. Their only real defense is climbing higher into the eucalyptus trees where they make their homes—little defense at all in a raging forest fire.
Eucalyptus itself is some of the most fire-adapted vegetation on Earth, able to sprout and grow anew in the immediate aftermath of fires. In normal fire conditions, the flames wouldn’t typically reach the top of the trees, leaving the koalas relatively unscathed. The spike we’re seeing in koala deaths is an indicator that something is wrong, says David Bowman, director of the Fire Center Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.
The scale of the current fires—largely a result of climate change and the slow death of Aboriginal fire management methods—has no precedent, according to Bowman. “They are burning at a particularly high intensity,” he says.
Packed with oil, the trees are burning hot and fast, sometimes exploding and sending sparks yards in every direction.
It’s only the spring in Australia. “In terms of then bushfire crisis, this is the supporting act,” Bowman says. He worries that the situation will be far worse come in January and February, as temperatures continue to rise and drought is exacerbated.
How many koalas are left?
In 2016, experts estimated that there are about 329,000 koalas in Australia, which represents an average of a 24 percent decline in populations over the past three generations.
“It’s very difficult to estimate koala populations, even at the best of times,” Adams-Hosking says, because they have a very wide range across eastern Australia, and are human-shy and found very high up in trees. “Some populations are becoming locally extinct and others are doing just fine.”
Koalas are threatened by land development, food degradation (increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has diminished the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves), drought, dog attacks, and chlamydia. (Read more about the threats posed by cars and dogs.)
And, yes, fire too. In certain areas that have been hard hit by fire, it’s possible that local koala populations won’t recover, “but it’s too early to tell,” says Adams-Hosking. “We’d need monitoring over several years.”
Have the fires really decimated 80 percent of koala habitat?
No. Koalas’ range is large, extending along Australia’s entire Eastern coast. The recent bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland cover about a million hectares, Fisher says (and some estimates indicate as many as 2.5 million hectares), but the area of forest in eastern Australia where koalas can live is more than 100 million hectares.
Furthermore, just because an area has been affected by fire, says Grant Williamson, a postdoctoral fellow specializing in landscape ecology at the University of Tasmania, “does not mean it has been ‘destroyed’ and is no longer suitable for occupation by koalas.”
Are koalas ‘functionally extinct?’
“Functionally extinct” refers to when a species no longer has enough individual members to produce future generations or play a role in the ecosystem. (Learn more: What is extinction? The answer is complicated.)
The fires may have killed many koalas “but this is not enough to change their overall threat status as a species,” Fisher says.
The headlines claiming that koalas are functionally extinct appear to be based on a claim from a koala conservation group earlier in 2019. Scientists disputed it then and continue to dispute it now: “It is threatened in some parts of its range and not in others,” says Diana Fisher, associate professor in the school of biological sciences at the University of Queensland.
For some local populations of koalas in the fire zones, especially in northern New South Wales, the impact has likely been “catastrophic,” Adams-Hosking says. A third of koalas in the fire zones there may have perished.
But other populations, such as those in the southern state of Victoria, have not been affected by these fires at all, according to Johnson.
So what’s next?
“It’s not looking good for koalas at all, even before the fires,” says Adams-Hosking. While they have government protections—it’s illegal to kill a koala, for instance—their habitat is highly vulnerable, she says. “Very little of koala habitat is designated as protected area. Almost nothing.” She argues that the government needs to put the environment before economic growth. “Until that political will kicks in—and in Australia, it hasn’t—it’s not going to get any better for koalas.”
In the meantime, The Koala Hospital of Port Macquarie, located about 250 miles north of Sydney in one of the most fire-affected zones, is actively rescuing and treating koalas. To date, they’ve treated at least 22, according to the New York Times.
Adams-Hosking and David Bowman, the landscape fire expert, both argue that in addition to protecting land, it’s vital to start looking at rewilding and relocating koalas. “We’ve got to get with the program and start adapting, says Bowman. “If we want koalas, we’ve got to look after them. We need to step up.”