Koalas Face Extinction Threat After Wildfires: New Report
Australian conservation groups are asking the government to declare koalas endangered after the devastating wildfires this summer killed thousands of them and destroyed 45 million acres of bush that they call home, according to a new report from the conservation group International Fund for Animal Welfare.
The report used witness accounts and satellite imagery to assess the damage to the koala population. It conservatively estimates that nearly 5,000 koalas were killed, which accounts for 12 percent of the population in New South Wales, according to CNN. Another report from the World Wide Fund for Nature found that nearly 10,000 koalas died in New South Wales, which would comprise one-third of the koala population, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company.
Dr. Stephen Philips, principal research scientist and koala ecologist at the environmental consultancy Biolink, which compiled the International Fund for Animal Welfare report, said: "We've taken a conservative approach. But we still think that we have lost two out of every three koalas in NSW. It's a spectacular loss in terms of conservation criteria and meets endangered listing almost immediately."
It also found that the intensity of the fires made it extremely difficult for koalas to escape to safety. The researchers estimated that in areas of intense burning, at least 70 percent of the koala population perished, according to the report's executive summary.
"Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow moving and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely," wrote Josey Sharrad from the International Fund for Animal Welfare to 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," she added.
Those are troubling numbers since the koala population, prior to this summer's wildfires, had already experienced a nearly 20 percent population decline over the last three generations, which is about 18 years, according to the report.
The study looked at the effects of the wildfires from Oct. 1 to Jan. 10. The group expects to have a more complete picture of the threat koalas are under after it looks at data running through Feb. 10. The preliminary analysis shows a wide range of losses, anywhere from 29 percent to 67 percent of the koala population, according to the The Guardian. Even if the losses are on the conservative side, it still means nearly one-third of the population was lost in just a few months, plus much of their habitat was completely destroyed threatening their future viability.
"We realized the numbers [lost] were getting quite dire, but we also appreciated there was a need for a careful quantitative assessment of what's happened," said Phillips to The Guardian.
Stuart Blanch, a conservation scientist with the World Wildlife Fund for Nature argued that the losses mean a projected 2050 extinction for koalas has moved up and accelerated dramatically, so the marsupials should receive protected status, according to the Australian Broadcasting Company.
"What I've heard from people doing the surveys is that we might have lost 10,000 koalas from the fires and the droughts," said Blanch, as the Australian Broadcasting Company reported. "It's brought forward a 2050 extinction projected timeline for most of the populations across the state by years."
The new report from the International Fund for Animal Welfare backs up Blanch's assessment. It found "an immediate, ongoing and significant threat of extinction." According to CNN, the report states that koalas are eligible for a provisional listing as Endangered on an emergency basis under the New South Wales Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2016.
"Our koalas only stand a chance if we help," Sharrad said to CNN. "They are literally fighting for their survival. This rapid destruction of koala habitat, combined with climate change, is inflicting substantial stress and pushing the species towards extinction."
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By Katherine Kornei
Clear-cutting a forest is relatively easy—just pick a tree and start chopping. But there are benefits to more sophisticated forest management. One technique—which involves repeatedly harvesting smaller trees every 30 or so years but leaving an upper story of larger trees for longer periods (60, 90, or 120 years)—ensures a steady supply of both firewood and construction timber.
A Pattern in the Rings<p>The <a href="https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/coppice-standards-0" target="_blank">coppice-with-standards</a> management practice produces a two-story forest, said <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Bernhard_Muigg" target="_blank">Bernhard Muigg</a>, a dendrochronologist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. "You have an upper story of single trees that are allowed to grow for several understory generations."</p><p>That arrangement imprints a characteristic tree ring pattern in a forest's upper story trees (the "standards"): thick rings indicative of heavy growth, which show up at regular intervals as the surrounding smaller trees are cut down. "The trees are growing faster," said Muigg. "You can really see it with your naked eye."</p><p>Muigg and his collaborators characterized that <a href="https://ltrr.arizona.edu/about/treerings" target="_blank">dendrochronological pattern</a> in 161 oak trees growing in central Germany, one of the few remaining sites in Europe with actively managed coppice-with-standards forests. They found up to nine cycles of heavy growth in the trees, the oldest of which was planted in 1761. The researchers then turned to a historical data set — more than 2,000 oak <a href="https://eos.org/articles/podcast-discovering-europes-history-through-its-timbers" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">timbers from buildings and archaeological sites</a> in Germany and France dating from between 300 and 2015 — to look for a similar pattern.</p>
A Gap of 500 Years<p>The team found wood with the characteristic coppice-with-standards tree ring pattern dating to as early as the 6th century. That was a surprise, Muigg and his colleagues concluded, because the first mention of this forest management practice in historical documents occurred only roughly 500 years later, in the 13th century.</p><p>It's probable that forest management practices were not well documented prior to the High Middle Ages (1000–1250), the researchers suggested. "Forests are mainly mentioned in the context of royal hunting interests or donations," said Muigg. Dendrochronological studies are particularly important because they can reveal information not captured by a sparse historical record, he added.</p><p>These results were <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-78933-8" target="_blank">published in December in <em>Scientific Reports</em></a>.</p><p>"It's nice to see the longevity and the history of coppice-with-standards," said <a href="https://www.teagasc.ie/contact/staff-directory/s/ian-short/" target="_blank">Ian Short</a>, a forestry researcher at Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority in Ireland, not involved in the research. This technique is valuable because it promotes conservation and habitat biodiversity, Short said. "In the next 10 or 20 years, I think we'll see more coppice-with-standards coming back into production."</p><p>In the future, Muigg and his collaborators hope to analyze a larger sample of historic timbers to trace how the coppice-with-standards practice spread throughout Europe. It will be interesting to understand where this technique originated and how it propagated, said Muigg, and there are plenty of old pieces of wood waiting to be analyzed. "There [are] tons of dendrochronological data."</p><p><em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Katherine Kornei</a> is a freelance science journalist covering Earth and space science. Her bylines frequently appear in Eos, Science, and The New York Times. Katherine holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.</em></p><p><em>This story originally appeared in <a href="https://eos.org/articles/tree-rings-reveal-how-ancient-forests-were-managed" target="_blank">Eos</a></em> <em>and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.</em></p>
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