- Mongabay spoke to John Zichy-Woinarski, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Australian Marsupial and Monotreme specialist group, to examine the marsupial’s current status in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires.
- Woinarski says that probably the single factor that could make the most improvement to koala conservation is tighter control on land clearing.
- “I think it would be prudent now to re-assess the conservation status of the species as a whole under Australian legislation, and this is likely to happen. Without wishing to pre-empt the process, I’d foreshadow that an Australian-wide listing of vulnerable would be the likely outcome from any national re-assessment – this is the status we concluded in our IUCN assessment.”
- Treating koalas as a ‘flagship’ species is tricky though, he says: koala losses help convey the magnitude of biodiversity loss associated with these fires, but less charismatic species have been far more affected by fires and there has been far less funding available for them. Nonetheless, some of the supported actions for koalas may have some collateral benefits for other species.
As part of World Wildlife Day celebrations, experts from around the world gathered in New York to participate in the Wild Ideas panel (powered by the UN and Jackson Wild Film Festival) to discuss the global biodiversity crisis and the impacts of climate change.
Mongabay.com spoke to John Zichy-Woinarski, Co-Chair of the IUCN SSC Australian Marsupial and Monotreme specialist group, to examine the marsupial’s current status in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires.
Mongabay: Despite existing protection strategies, koala numbers have decreased considerably in key habitat areas over the last 20 years and some argue that existing federal legislation is incapable of providing the level of protection needed to save koala populations. What are some measures that the Australian government can implement to get this species back on track considering that climate change will possibly increase the intensity of bushfires in the future?
John Zichy-Woinarski: Yes, along with many Australian threatened species, koala numbers continue to decline, notwithstanding many generic and closely targeted conservation programs and plans, and reasonable protection for the species in legislation. Probably the single factor that could make the most improvement to koala conservation is tighter control on land clearing.
Eucalyptus is the main diet of koalas, and this species is highly adapted to regrow after fire; however, during past events, fires have been so intense that the shoots have stopped re-sprouting and regenerating. How important is it to protect resilient habitat for koalas?
There are about 1,000 species of eucalypt, and most regrow after fire, although very severe fires can kill them. Yes, in these extensive fires, there are some key unburned patches (or areas burned at low intensity) and these are critical refugial habitat from which koala populations can re-colonize burned areas when these again become suitable, so there is a critical need to protect these unburned areas.
The risk of inbreeding increases as climate change isolates koala populations. How important are breeding programs to maintain the continued existence of viable koala populations in the wild for the species’ long-term survival?
Koala populations are isolated by many factors, notably habitat loss and fragmentation. Climate change is probably not so important for koala continuity and maintenance of genetic diversity: climate change is mostly reducing the peripheral (lower rainfall edge of range) populations. There is a long history of koala translocations to try to rebuild local populations and manage genetic diversity, but such translocations are somewhat constrained by risks of the spread of disease.
Since 2012, koalas have been listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory under the Environmental Protection Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). However, considering the damage the fires have done to koala populations, do you think it is necessary to re-evaluate their ‘Vulnerable’ listing?
Yes, koala status is worse in QLD, NSW and ACT than in Victoria or South Australia, and this variable level of imperilment prompted the part-range status given the species under Australian legislation. I think it would be prudent now to re-assess the conservation status of the species as a whole under Australian legislation, and this is likely to happen. Without wishing to pre-empt the process, I’d foreshadow that an Australian-wide listing of vulnerable would be the likely outcome from any national re-assessment – this is the status we concluded in our IUCN assessment.
Increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere leads to a decrease in nutrients stored in trees, and therefore, a degradation in the quality of eucalyptus leaves. How important is it to consider factors like this in recovery plans for the species?
That’s an emerging threat, but not readily resolved by management actions. I’m afraid that the only known solution is to strive harder to constrain greenhouse gas emissions and climate change, and to help reduce the intensity and effects of other threats.
During the fires, this charismatic species has garnered vast international attention and funds for species recovery. What are your thoughts about the effectiveness of koalas as umbrella species?
Indeed. Koalas as the ‘flagship’ is a mixed blessing. Koala losses help convey the magnitude of biodiversity loss associated with these fires (and with other factors), but many less charismatic species have been far more affected by fires (including plants, invertebrates, reptiles, fish, birds and other mammals) and there has been far less funding available for them. Nonetheless, some of the supported actions for koalas may have some collateral benefits for other species. The public wave of support for koalas is also driven largely by animal welfare concerns rather than species conservation per se.
What can we learn from this devastating bushfire crisis?
Yes, there are many lessons, and they are apposite globally: 1., climate change will have devastating consequences for biodiversity, so if we are serious about species conservation then we need to strive harder to constrain it, 2., significant biodiversity assets need to be better factored into fire control operations, 3., conservation and recovery planning needs to factor in the possibility of catastrophe, in part by trying better to spread the risk, 4., rapid responses post-fire (e.g. salvage of populations of threatened species from sites no longer capable of supporting viable populations, protection of unburned refugial areas) are important and can help maintain significant local populations, and 5., support should be prioritized strategically, for example to species most likely to become extinct without such support.
Banner image: Australian bushfires. © dblumenberg / Adobe Stock