Koala Headlines

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“Koalas no more in our bush”
“Koala listing another example of government ‘greentape’…”
“Koala listing offers no protection from logging”
“The vulnerable koala: are we in time to save our national icon?”
“Koalas get some protection in parts of Australia”

These are just some of the headlines coming out of Australia these days. And for good reason: Environment Minister Tony Burke announced on April 30 that the federal government decided to list the koala as vulnerable in New South Wales, Queensland, and Australian Capital Territory. However, there are two other states that are part of the koalas’ home range, Victoria and South Australia, where the federal government did not list the koalas as vulnerable, and this is bringing up some debate and discussion.

While is it is great to see the conservation research of Bill Ellis (former San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research postdoctoral fellow and still a research collaborator of mine) being used in the political arena by helping the federal government come up with the vulnerable determination for koalas, there is always more that could be done. The debate and reason for the lack of protection for southern (Victorian) koalas is that there is a common misconception of the robustness of the southern ranging koala population, since there are high numbers in that region.

More than population numbers need to be taken into account when listing an animal. Kellie Leigh, conservation biologist from the Australian Ecosystems Foundation (and a collaborator with me on koala scent studies), says many of the large koala populations in Victoria have been bred from a small number of individuals that were reintroduced from the French and Phillip islands. “There is evidence that these populations suffer from inbreeding depression, including things like testicular abnormalities,” Dr. Leigh says. “This lack of genetic fitness also means that the populations are much more susceptible to pressures like disease.”

The idea that the Victorian koalas are “eating themselves out of house and home” perpetuates the idea that this population of koalas does not need protection like their northern counterparts. “Looking at numbers alone is just not meaningful in conservation terms. While the listing is welcome and a step in the right direction, we need to conserve the koala right across the species range if we want to hang on to this iconic animal,” says Dr. Leigh. Even with scientific input on the declining numbers of koalas in the northern states, the koala was not listed to the highest level: endangered.

It is wonderful that the San Diego Zoo has a robust colony of Queensland koalas for all Zoo visitors to see. And we will soon have a new home for them, opening in Spring 2013. But in my 10 years of koala research, I didn’t think that there might be a time when I might not see a koala in the wild. As a guest at one of my first talks at the Zoo asked, “Why are you studying koalas if they are not endangered?” My response was that their foothold in Australia could change at any time and could cross that threshold. Unfortunately, I am sorry to say that this is where we are heading. However, all is not lost, and the crusade for preserving the koala in Australia is strong. Although this listing does not cover all the koala populations, it is one more step in the right direction. So the next time you stop in and see our koalas, remember their wild counterparts and that there is reason for hope!

Jennifer Tobey is a research coordinator at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Victorians: The Other Koalas.