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Koalas are facing possible extinction. The threat is now so real, that many of the native animals are literally falling off their perches and being found dead at the base of trees.
Twenty-six per cent of the koala population has been lost in NSW over the past twenty years. At this alarming rate, the national icon could be extinct in the state by 2050.
Satellite imagery shows that thousands of hectares of native bushland in the state’s north have been utterly destroyed. Although previous land clearing laws slowed the rate of habitat destruction, James Tremain from the Nature Conservation Council says that changes in government legislation have led to a new wave of land clearing - which is again threatening the survival of the vulnerable species.
“Unless we start doing something to protect koalas on public land and state forests, where most of the koala habitat exists, we’re going to be responsible for an extinction event in our lifetime,” Mr Tremain said.
An investigation by the Nature Conservation Council and the World Wildlife Fund revealed that since the NSW Government axed the Native Vegetation Act in 2017, the destruction of koala habitat in the state’s north has almost tripled. The report shows that in the Moree-Collarenebri region, more than 5000 hectares of koala habitat was bulldozed within a year. That’s fourteen football fields a day.
“When the government changed the law in August last year, it released this pent up desire to clear more land,” Mr Tremain said.
“It’s pretty simple maths. If you remove their habitat, you are removing animals."
The World Wildlife Fund estimates there are less than 20,000 koalas left in the state. At this rate they’re on the path to extinction within just three koala generations. And land clearing is just one of many threats to their survival.
Australia is struggling through the worst drought in more than 40 years, so not only are koala habitats being permanently damaged or completely destroyed, the remaining eucalyptus trees are rapidly drying out - forcing the animals to leave their homes in search of water.
University of Sydney animal behaviourist Dr Valentina Mella, recently conducted a study which found that a quarter of the koala deaths in Gunnedah were the result of thirst.
“The animals were severely dehydrated and they were found dead at the base of trees," Dr Mella said. "Local landowners were quite distressed."
Known as the ‘koala capital of the world’, local landowners weren’t only seeing fewer koalas but they were also finding them drinking extensively from fountains and bird baths.
Dr Mella set up artificial water stations in their favourite trees to monitor how koala behaviour changes during extreme heat.
“They are using water stations extensively. We’re seeing this behaviour more and more often because the leaves are becoming so dry.”
Additionally, as temperatures soar in the state’s west, koalas are dying from heat exhaustion after just two or three days of forty-degree heat.
Wildlife rescue organisations say they’re being pushed to the limit as they race to save vulnerable animals in drought affected areas. Wires Koala Coordinator Vickii Lett, says the organisation gets calls every day from concerned locals who are finding koalas roaming in search of a safe habitat.
“They have to cross busy roads; they move to areas where there are dogs; you find them on telegraph poles, clotheslines, and all sorts of inappropriate places,” Ms Lett said.
“The drought has just added another layer of stress. It’s that straw that can break the camel's back for them. They are already at the end of their tether and when you add that layer, they are in real trouble.”
They even become more exposed to contracting deadly diseases like chlamydia.
“We need corridors... we need to look after the habitat that is left and give them opportunities to move across the landscape,” she said.
The destruction and fragmentation of koala habitat leads to a reduction in population connectivity. This heightens the risk of inbreeding, and decreases genetic diversity among surviving koala populations.
Australian Museum Research Institute Director Dr Rebecca Johnson, led a collaboration of scientists to complete the world-first full sequencing of the koala genome.
Understanding the mammal’s genetic blueprint is vital in protecting its long term survival, as it aids the treatment of diseases and provides a qualitative measure of the existing population.
"We can use it to understand their genetic diversity and that's one of the fundamental, underpinning things that we do in conservation genetics,” Dr Johnson said.
“Now that we have the genome we can look at the level of diversity across the entire population in Australia.”
The genetic data has informed the NSW Government’s Koala Strategy, a state-wide $45 million commitment to reverse the rapid decline of koala populations. The strategy includes the purchase of around 24,000 hectares of suitable habitat to add to the conservation estate.