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Koalas are Officially Functionally Extinct

Koala closeup tree

Koalas news floating around social media that koalas now functionally extinct. And if you haven’t been privy to the news yet, well sorry but those cute little gray bears that chill in trees and eat Eucalyptus leaves are in danger. Like many other animals, these cuddly bears are in danger of disappearing from our world forever. According to researchers, there’s an estimated 80,000 left in the wild. “We only expect these numbers to continue to dwindle over the next coming years as we continue to invade their habitats and climate change continues to worsen. We’ve left a lot of animals on our planet with no where to go except extinction and unfortunately, these marsupials are the next ones being added to an ever growing list,” scientists say.

Climate change is one of the leading causes of the low number of koalas that are in the wild. For the most part, we tend to focus on this subject in regards to how our impact on the planet affects us directly. We tend to center around what life will be like for us humans if we continue going down the same path. And unfortunately, little attention and thought is given to the plants as well as animals that share the Earth with us. A lot of the damage we’ve done and continue to do has had a lasting impact on the planet’s animals for the worst. In some cases, we’ve seen whole species die off.

And now, Koalas have found their way to that list. Koalas are native to Australia but are famous around the world for their cute, cuddly appearance. “These little bears have captured the hearts of many around the world. We all love seeing videos and pictures of them pop up on social media. Personally speaking, it always makes my day to see one of these little guys happily eating some leaves. However, these images will soon be a thing of the past,” researchers lament.

According to both Metro and the Australian Koala Foundation, the species is now “functionally extinct.”

What does Koalas functionally extinct even mean?

Koala baby is sitting mothers back and looking at the camera

Sorry to disappoint those who have been holding out hope that the Koalas will bounce back, but functionally extinct isn’t a good term and it’s one that bears (no pun intended) dire consequences. According to definition, functional extinction refers to the extinction of a species that disappears from fossil records and historic reports; the impacted population no longer plays a role in the ecosystem; or the population can no longer sustain itself. In the case of the koalas, it’s the latter. Their numbers are so small that the population is no longer viable and even with increased efforts to breed them, researchers hold little hope of seeing the species make a comeback.

So in short, there aren’t enough koalas left in the world to create a new generation of koalas. “80,000 sounds like a lot of koalas until you take a lot of factors into consideration. Koala mothers only birth and raise one baby at a time. Of course there are many risk factors for the baby, which is why so many other animals give birth to a number of offspring. But for the koalas, it’s one and done at a time. This already limits their population but when you also take into consideration that a lot of the koalas in the number we’re discussing are past the birthing age, it becomes even more harrowing,” researchers lament. “We don’t have enough breeding adults left to carry on the species and there’s nothing we can really do about that. Also, if one disease was to hit their population, they could go extinct almost overnight.”

However, there are those that are still holding out hope that with some changes in laws and legislation, these cute little guys could bounce back.

Are we out of options completely to save Koalas?

Mother with joey on back

Despite the fact that the outlook isn’t good at all for koalas, people aren’t content to sit around and watch the species wither away without at least putting up a fight. “We’re not going to be part of the defeatist attitude that lets us sit back and watch koalas slowly crawl their way to extinction. There are still 80,000 left and that’s hope,” say many. Deborah Tabart, who is Chairman of the Koala Foundation, also agrees with that sentiment.

“We refuse to sit around and wait for them to go extinct. We’re going to look at all viable options and do our best to save them,” Tabart said. Part of her plan includes reaching out to the Australian Prime Minister and asking him to step up. She has also proposed the Koala Protection Act. This act was originally drafted in 2016 but since the dire news of the koalas, Tabart says the act needs to go into effect immediately. “If we don’t act now, then it’s going to be too late for these little guys. We need to take action.”

Climate change is also playing a big role in the extinction of koalas. “Climate change isn’t as detrimental to these guys as deforestation is, but it still does affect them in negative ways. If we don’t start taking action against global warming, we could see a lot of these areas dying off due to weather patterns rather than deforestation. Both need to be addressed and both are equally concerning,” experts say.

What is the Koala Protection Act?

Koala is trying to climb men from the back

The AKF, or Australian Koala Foundation has been looking out for koalas for some time now. The group originally began in 1986 when they realized that there was no one around to speak up for the little guys. “We originally sought to protect both them and their habitats. They’re very picky when it comes to what they eat and where they nest, and deforestation is shrinking their homes significantly. Unfortunately, existing legislation does little to stop this from happening. We’re very aware that their induction onto the endangered list is due to the fact that they are losing their homes,” says AKF. This prompted them to draft the Koala Protection Act.

Under the act, certain trees that the koalas will favor will be protected. Habitats that are empty will also be protected under the act. “It’s not enough to just start protecting the areas they occupy now. If we’re going to grow the species and give them a chance at survival, we need to protect other areas that could be possible homes for the koalas,” says AKF. “Current legislation only focuses on the koala itself rather than its habitat. This is why we’ve had to draft the plan. It just isn’t enough to protect the animals with laws; we need to protect their homes as well.”

The Australian Koala Foundation put together a list of trees that Koalas prefer. This list was then added to the act, which would in turn protect these trees from being taken down, destroyed, or messed with. Currently, AKF wants to prevent any applications for developments of areas that encompass these trees from passing. “Unless you can prove to us without a shadow of a doubt that your actions will have no negative affect on the landscape, it’s an automatic no. This won’t affect good industry leaders or threaten their companies. It’s going to impact those that don’t have everyone’s best interests at heart,” the Chairman of AKF said. “The legislation is incredibly sensible; we’re protecting the koalas while still allowing companies to expand as needed.”

But why are they so protective of these trees? Food and shelter seems endless for koalas in the wild but AKF says that this isn’t the case. “We have to protect these trees because for koalas, they’re the only source of nutrition and shelter. They’re not just going to go out and eat leaves off of another tree because you took down their favorite ones. Their bodies, diet, and lifestyle depends heavily on these specific trees. Without them, they’re susceptible to threats such as dogs, wild animals, and even cars. Not to mention, they have nothing else to eat.”

The act also addresses another sad concern: industries can get permits to “take koalas”. This means that if they accidentally kill a koala, they won’t face prosecution. Under the Koala Protection Act, this would no longer be allowed. “Accidents happen, but it’s not like we don’t know which trees and areas koalas prefer. So companies pay them little to no attention while carrying out their operations; especially since there aren’t any consequences to accidentally killing one of these guys. It’s easier to get the permit and act carelessly than it is to take your time,” AKF says.

What happens if they die off?

A koala climbing up a tree in Washington, DC Zoo

While it’s always sad to contemplate the possible extinction of an entire species of animal, the disappearance of koalas could have an effect on Australia’s ecosystem. Since the marsupials’ diet is compromised solely of tree leaves, they provide a lot of fertilization for the forest floors thanks to their droppings. “Their droppings are rich in nutrients that the ground craves and loves. Their excrements help pave the way for new plant life and help sustain others. It’s free fertilizer that forest needs. Without them, it would be left to us to keep up with the nutrition that the forests need,” AKF says. Koalas have very specific bacteria in their guts, which obviously provides specific droppings. This feeds the soil, but may also be vital for other animals and plants as well. Not to mention, this bacteria might be something we can’t replicate.

The other effects are also impossible to predict. “We might not think that they have a significant impact on the world around us, but we can’t say that with complete certainty,” Tabart states. For starters, koalas only inhabit specific areas. This means that they also restrict what else can share the space with them. By forcing other rivals out, they inadvertently control the population size of other animals much in the way that wolves control the population of deer. If this population was to go unchecked, it might result in overpopulation. This could harm neighboring animals and plants.

Also, eucalyptus trees might also be in danger if koalas go extinct. Both the marsupials and the trees exist in a symbiotic relationship. The trees feed them with their leaves, and in turn they nourish the trees with their droppings. They may also protect the trees from other predators. Eucalyptus trees could become destabilized or even die off if koalas do.

Keep in mind that these are all just theories. Nobody can say with absolute certainty exactly what will happen if/when the koalas die off. “We can only make predictions based on the extinction of other animals and our knowledge of their relationship with the wild,” say experts. “It could be as bad as we’re predicting, or it could be something so minor we hardly notice. It’s a roll of the dice but either way, it’s something we definitely shouldn’t be gambling with.”

What can you do?

The Distribution of the Koala According to the IUCN

This has been on the minds of nearly everyone since the species was labeled as being functionally extinct. Unfortunately, there isn’t much any one person can do but signing petitions to support the Koala Protection Act as well as donating to their foundation goes a long way. If you’re a native Australian, you can also appeal to your local lawmakers to encourage them to take action to protect koalas. According to Tabart, the more signatures they get and the more people that appeal to their lawmakers, the more likely it is for the protection act to pass quickly.

In addition to this, spreading the word about their critical state and encouraging others to sign the petitions and appeal to lawmakers will also help. Anything you can do to get the word out and get as many people as possible on your side is worth doing. Also, start taking actions against climate change. This will also help the cuddly little guys. No effort is too small or too insignificant.

What are your thoughts?

We’d like to know what you think would happen if koalas were to go extinct. Do you think that they’ll have the large impact on the ecosystem that many think they will? Or do you think that because they occupy such a niche area that we’re only miss seeing them in pictures on social media? We also want to know what you think of the Koala Protection Act and whether or not you think it’ll work. Do you think it’s too late to save these cute little marsupials or do you think there’s hope? Let us know in the comment section below!

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

Written by Vimal Lalani

Vimal Lalani is senior correspondent for Ishli, Medical and Wellness unit, reporting breaking news and health consumer reporting on Ishli.com.

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