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Koalas Become 'Functionally Extinct' in Australia With Just 80,000 Left

Animals
Wild Koala on the side of the Great Ocean road in Victoria, Australia. John Crux Photography / Moment / Getty Images

Koala species down under are now considered "functionally extinct" as the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) says there are no more than 80,000 individuals left on the continent. Once a population falls below a critical point, it can no longer produce the next generation, ultimately leading to the species' extinction.


"The AKF thinks there are no more than 80,000 Koalas in Australia. This is approximately 1% of the 8 million Koalas that were shot for fur and sent to London between 1890 and 1927," said AKF chairman Deborah Tabart, adding that the population could be as low as 43,000.

The organization has been monitoring koala populations in 128 of Australia's electorates for nearly a decade. Since then, 41 have seen the marsupials go extinct. However, the AKF estimate is much lower than other population predictions, albeit outdated ones. For example, the International Union of Conservation of Nature Red List of Endangered Species lists koalas as "vulnerable" with decreasing numbers, estimating in 2014 that there are between 100,000 and 500,000 mature individuals left in the wild.

So what does functionally extinct mean? The Conversation reports it means that koala populations have declined so far that the species no longer plays a significant role in its ecosystem.

Native only to the eastern side of the continent, an adult koala can eat as much as 1 kilogram of Eucalyptus leaves each night, according to AKF. Eucalyptus is normally poisonous to most species, but koalas have evolved a special bacteria that allow them to break down toxic compounds. Because they only absorb around 25 percent of fiber eaten, important nutrients and other organic material to the forest floor. Functional extinction also means that koalas are can no longer successfully reproduce in the wild to replace the population. Even if they are still breeding, pairs may be inbreeding which can further threaten future viability.

Perhaps more at-heart is the emblematic role koalas have on Australian culture.

"The koala is one of Australia's most recognizable symbols, but its survival hangs in the balance," said the San Diego Zoo. "Formerly thought to be common and widespread, koalas are now vulnerable to extinction across much of its northern range."

In the past, koalas were killed for their coats — between 1919 and 1924 eight million koalas were killed. Today, koalas are threatened by domestic dogs and disease, along with increasing encroachment due to human development, logging and wood harvesting, and droughts and extreme weather associated with climate change.

Though koalas are currently protected by law, almost 80 percent of remaining habitat occurs on privately owned land with very little protection offered under the legislation. This is why the AKF is calling for the need for a Koala Protection Act (KPA).

"I know the Australian public are concerned for the safety of Koalas and are tired of seeing dead Koalas on our roads. It is time for the Government to respect the Koala and protect its habitat," said Tabart.

According to the AKF, the Australian government was required to establish a National Recovery Plan in 2012 but has neglected to do so in the last six years. Framework for KPA is based on the Bald Eagle Act in the U.S., which incorporates both Federal Endangered Species Act and environmental protection policies in place. In part, AKF notes that the American act has been so successful because of political motive to ensure the nation's icon did not go extinct.

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