Australia has recently raised concerns by announcing that its national treasure, the koala, has been officially listed as an endangered species in key habitats such as New South Wales and Queensland. What are the factors that have caused the koala population to plummet?
Peter Tims, a biologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, believes that in recent decades, Australia’s urban development, road construction and land clearing for agriculture and mining have led to a large number of eucalyptus trees being felled. Without eucalyptus, the koala’s food source is greatly affected.
The endangerment of koalas has a lot to do with its “closeness to the people”. Koalas have a teddy bear-like face, innocent eyes and an unusually docile temperament. As an arboreal animal, koalas are also known as “koalas”, and their every move is full of joy.
Koalas have evolved a unique way of survival over tens of millions of years: to avoid competition with other animals by eating only the nutrient-poor, hard-to-chew eucalyptus leaves. Eucalyptus leaves are highly hydrated and toxic, so koalas do not need to go to the ground to drink water (in the indigenous language, koala means “do not drink water”), and must sleep 20 hours a day for “detoxification”. Koalas have also evolved two thumbs in order to grip tree trunks more powerfully. All of these reduce the possibility of being discovered and hunted by natural enemies. Before European colonists landed in 1788, there were as many as 10 million koalas in Australia. But in just over 230 years, the number of koalas has dropped sharply to 58,000 today. Given that Australia’s natural environment has not changed dramatically, it is clear that the tragedy was largely man-made. Early European colonists discovered that koala fur could be used to make coats, gloves and hats, etc., and began to hunt them wantonly. By 1927, the number of koalas in Australia dropped to about 100,000. In 1930, Australia declared koalas to be protected animals in all states, and since then the number of koalas has rebounded to 430,000 by 1990. However, deforestation, urban development, road construction and other large-scale destruction of habitats, koalas encountered bad luck again. At present, the distribution range of koalas has been reduced by at least 50% compared with that before the European colonists landed, and countless koalas lost their lives while losing their homes. In February 2020, 25 koalas were killed by bulldozers and other heavy machinery at a logging site in Victoria. Various roads, especially highways, often divide the koala’s habitat in two, causing koalas to be hit by cars when they forage between the two forests. According to conservative statistics, more than 3,500 koalas were killed by cars in New South Wales between 1980 and 2018. Urban development is increasingly extending to forests, and the proportion of koalas killed by domestic dogs is increasing, which now accounts for 3% of the total number of koala deaths.
It should be emphasized that the “fire of the century” (2019-2020) that caused the death of koalas on a large scale was also caused by man-made disasters to some extent. In early January 2020, Australian police arrested 183 arson suspects in four eastern states. The Australian government has also admitted that the failure to mobilize national resources in a timely manner has contributed to the rapid spread of the fire and its inability to extinguish it. According to estimates by the World Wildlife Fund, Australia’s “fires of the century” have burned more than 19 million hectares of land, killing and injuring more than 60,000 koalas.
In bushfires, koalas can be burned, smoked or starved to death. The picture shows the forest in New South Wales after the fire.
The Australian government said a few days ago that it will invest 50 million Australian dollars (about 1.39 Australian dollars) in the next four years to protect the koala habitat. The Australian Koala Foundation calls on the government to take practical legal measures to reduce bush clearing and increase the protection of koala habitat.