Koalas not functionally extinct: experts in Australia

Koalas are not ‘functionally extinct’ but they are in danger, according to academics in Australia who rejected claims made after devastating bushfires led to the deaths of thousands of the marsupials.

Valentina Mella, a koala conservationist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Sydney said the claims could be dangerous to conservation efforts.

The term ‘functionally extinct’ refers to species whose reduced populations are no longer viable,” said Dr Mella, said. “While I understand that the motive is to emphasise the threats to koalas, the implication of declaring koalas as functionally extinct is that there is no value in koala conservation. This can have dangerous consequences. Focus should be shifted to the valuable research-based management strategies that can be applied to enhance koala conservation, which could address the threats that have recently been highlighted.”

Genetic diversity is low but some populations are increasing

Associate Professor Mathew Crowther, a wildlife ecologist in the School of Life and Environmental Sciences, said the term “functionally extinct” is misleading, with many meanings.

“It can be used to say that the species is too low in numbers to make a contribution to the ecosystem, or it is too low to recover in numbers. Both are untrue for koalas,” he said. “The Australian Koala Foundation has recently used it to say that genetic diversity is too low for koalas to survive into the future. This is also untrue.

“Koalas are in decline in many populations and the recent bushfires do not help. However, some populations are doing well and even increasing in size. Hence it is alarmist and adds nothing to the conversation to say koalas are ‘functionally extinct’.”

Estimating koala populations

The best scientific evidence that is currently available puts the koala population in Australia at around 330,000 animals, said Associate Professor David Phalen, in the Sydney School of Veterinary Science.

“Koala populations in Victoria and South Australia are stable, increasing or, in some areas, overabundant,” Associate Professor Phalen said. “Koalas in Queensland and NSW are threatened.”

Risks to koalas include habitat loss, motor vehicle strikes, dog attacks, disease and the impact of climate change.

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