SYDNEY — Koalas, one of Australia’s most iconic creatures, may go extinct in the wild in the state of New South Wales without urgent action to protect their habitat, a government-backed inquiry said Tuesday.
In a sweeping report, a bipartisan committee of lawmakers found the koala could be locally extinct by 2050 due to ongoing habitat loss linked to agriculture, mining and forestry. The authors also zeroed in on a bevy of other threats, namely severe drought exacerbated by climate change.
The report focuses on the devastation wrought by a series of wildfires that scorched more than 71,000 square miles after burning for nearly six months. More than a billion animals were estimated to have perished in the fires, including at least 5,000 koalas.
“Even before the devastating 2019-2020 bushfires it was clear that the koala in NSW, already a threatened species, was in significant trouble,” Cate Faehrmann, the committee’s chairwoman, wrote in the report. “With at least 5,000 koalas lost in the fires, potentially many more, it was deeply distressing but extremely important for committee members to agree to the finding that koalas will become extinct in NSW before 2050 without urgent government intervention.”
The committee also warned that official estimates that 36,000 koalas remain in New South Wales were “outdated and unreliable.”
The report lists 42 recommendations that may be considered by the state government to help protect to iconic species, including efforts to encourage farmers and land owners to protect eucalyptus trees and broader biodiversity.
New South Wales Environment Minister Matt Kean said the government would do everything it could to protect the koala from the future predicted by the report.
“Last season’s bushfires had a devastating impact on our koala population,” Kean told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. “Koalas are an iconic Australian animal recognized the world over and a national treasure which we will do everything we can to protect for future generations.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature in Australia, however, said local officials had failed to go far enough to protect koala habitats.
“The NSW Government has failed to stop core koala habitat being bulldozed on private land or chopped down in coastal state forests. No trees, no koalas,” Stuart Blanch, a senior manager at WWF-Australia, said in a statement. “WWF calls on the NSW Premier to rewrite weak land clearing laws to protect koala habitat, greatly increase funding for farmers who actively conserve trees where koalas live, and a transition out of logging koala forests and into plantations.”
The report did find overwhelming public support to protect koalas from extinction, noting it was Australia’s animal with the “largest amount of government funding directed towards it.”
“However to its detriment, koalas like many of the same things that humans do, such as fertile soils, moderate temperatures and forests,” the authors note.