No one wants a day to come where koalas are nothing but a memory, or exist solely in the confinement of captivity. Their recent status change to ‘endangered’ across much of the east coast of Australia highlights that we cannot take this precious native species for granted. Thankfully, there are simple things we can do to address the biggest threats they face.
The koala: one of Australia’s most adored native species
People from across the globe can easily recognise the cute, fuzzy-eared koala, and travel great distances hoping to catch a glimpse of them in the Australian bush. These unique marsupials are only found in the eucalyptus forests of eastern and south-eastern Australia.
Koalas spend much of their time sleeping in tree branches because they get very little energy from their eucalyptus leaf diet. Among the many quirky characteristics of koalas is their ability to use their cheek pouches to store leaves to munch on later.
Although unthinkable now, koalas were once hunted for their fur, and their populations declined drastically. Today, the main threat to the species is habitat destruction. Swathes of forest are being destroyed for agriculture and plantation logging, or by extreme weather events. Finding new, safe homes is becoming more difficult and dangerous for those who survive the destruction as remaining forests become increasingly fragmented.
In 2022, the conservation status of the koala was upgraded from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’ in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory. While populations in Victoria are thought to be stable at this time, the state has the largest total area of commercial plantations in Australia, posing a deadly risk to the koalas who call these areas home.
Habitat destruction – namely for grazing cattle for beef and dairy – is displacing and killing koalas
A key threat to wildlife survival across Australia and the rest of the world is habitat destruction, driven by our current food system. To meet the demand for animal products like beef and dairy, increasingly more animals are being bred to be killed by the animal agriculture industry each year. As a result, more land is being cleared to graze them and grow their feed, and the habitat for koalas and other native animals is ever-shrinking.
Land clearing for other purposes, like mining, housing and infrastructure, also has a detrimental impact but accounts for considerably less land use than for farmed animals. Due to the rate we are currently breeding and raising farmed animals, according to available data, there are significantly more farmed animals on Earth today than there are wild mammals and birds.
Koalas require more than just a few trees to survive — estimates indicate they need hundreds or even thousands — and this is increasingly challenging for the species as established forests are cut down. By shifting to foods that are kinder to animals and the planet, wild spaces can be spared for the wildlife who rely on them for survival.
HOW TO HELP
- Because consumer demand has largely contributed to the issues that animals and the environment currently face, the power lies with us, as consumers, to shift demand to kinder alternatives. The most significant way to help reduce habitat destruction is to fill our plates with more plants — shaping a brighter future for not only wildlife, but farmed animals too. Order your free Veg Starter Kit here to start exploring the tasty and versatile world of plant-based eating, or head to VegKit.com to get cooking right away!
As the plantation industry grows, so does its threat to koalas
Plantations are commercial operations for wood production, where trees are planted and chopped down when mature for products like furniture, fencing, flooring, and paper products, including toilet paper. Plantations cover 1.7 million hectares across Australia, with the largest commercial area in the state of Victoria. It is estimated that tens of thousands of koalas reside in blue gum plantations in the south-west of the state.
Blue gum is a key source of food and habitat for koalas, so they have naturally taken refuge in these plantations as their original areas of habitat have been so depleted. But as these plantations reach maturity, thousands of hectares are being cut down by the plantation companies each year, putting the koalas who called the trees home at risk of injury or death, and displacing the survivors. And this issue will only get worse with the Victorian Government’s commitment to invest in and grow the state’s plantation industry.
The measures in place to ‘manage’ koalas in plantations are inadequate. Firstly, where operations may affect koalas, companies must apply for “Authorisation to Disturb Koalas” (under section 28A(1A) of the Wildlife Act). Under the Wildlife Act, killing, injuring or disturbing koalas is illegal, but the ‘authorisation’ offers government approval to disturb them.
Secondly, reporting koala sightings, injuries or deaths is left to plantation management and staff. Reported incidents inform a plantation company’s ‘Koala Index’ — an index designed to demonstrate if a plantation’s management of koalas is above or below the industry standard. There is no independent oversight of this process, which means monitoring koala welfare is left to those whose business operations would be impacted by a ‘bad score’.
Plantations accredited with ‘forest certifications’ like the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and the Responsible Wood Certification Scheme still put koalas at risk. In 2013, Australian Bluegum Plantations was stripped of its FSC certification (which has now been reinstated) over the harm it caused to koalas, highlighting that such ‘certification’ schemes cannot offer koalas safety from injury and death on plantations. Watch the ABC 7.30 report here.
Sadly, relocating koalas from plantations to new areas is not an option, as state and national parks in the southwest have existing koala populations. Because koalas live in established ‘home’ areas, being moved and forced to face other koalas in potentially overpopulated areas can increase their susceptibility to diseases worsened by stress, like Chlamydia which can have life-threatening health implications for koalas.
The government and the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) are well aware of the risks plantations present to koalas. For decades, these bodies have supported the timber industry without taking proper action to protect native wildlife. The Victorian Government was due to release a new koala management strategy in August 2022 but is yet to do so.
HOW TO HELP
- Even ‘forest-certified’ plantations put koalas at risk, so avoiding certain products made from blue gum or opting only for 100% recycled items is the safest option to protect koalas. Some common items that may be made from blue gum are paper products, including toilet paper, and pallets, flooring, furniture and fencing. Choosing recycled will help reduce the demand for blue gum, which is fuelling the expansion of plantations.
Koalas are increasingly vulnerable when seeking new, safe habitat
Koalas who survive the machinery and falling trees during logging, or those existing in fragmented pockets of forest, are left with little or no surrounding habitat. When seeking out new areas for food or shelter, they spend more time on the ground and may cross roads and backyards. This is when they are most vulnerable to being hit by vehicles or attacked by dogs.
HOW TO HELP
- Drive carefully, checking for koalas or other animals on the edge of the road, particularly where there are wildlife warning signs and during the night when koalas are most active. Be extra cautious turning corners where you can’t see much of the road ahead, as there is little time to react if an animal is crossing the road.
- If you see an animal who has been hit by a car, stop to see if they require help if it is safe to do so. Animals laying down may be alive and injured, or have live young in their pouch. Having the number of local wildlife groups saved on your phone can be very useful.
- To protect koalas in your yard or when out and about, train companion dogs to resist barking or chasing wildlife and to be responsive to commands. Walking dogs on a lead will keep both them and native animals safe, as will respecting ‘no dogs’ signs in parks and reserves.
Our kinder choices are their greatest hope
Human activities are the greatest threat to koalas – but through conscious and more compassionate choices, we are also their greatest hope. By choosing to fill our plates with animal-friendly food, opting for recycled paper and timber items, driving cautiously and training companion dogs, we can help the koalas of today and shape a brighter tomorrow for the species.