Reports claim koalas are now ‘functionally extinct’. That’s not actually true.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Source: Getty

Reports that koalas are functionally extinct following Australia’s bushfires have gone viral. Fortunately for koala fans, those reports are not accurate.

Over the weekend, a series of news reports claiming that koalas are now "functionally extinct" went viral.

The widely-shared reports claimed that Australia's recent bushfires destroyed 80 percent of koala habitat, leaving koalas "functionally extinct" -- a term that describes an animal population that has become so limited that the species can no longer reproduce.

Fortunately for koala fans, these reports are not accurate. But that doesn't mean koalas are doing fine, either. Here's what's going on.

Are koalas "functionally extinct" in Australia?

The claim that koalas are functionally extinct in Australia came from a group called the Australian Koala Foundation, or AKF, which advocates for the protection and conservation of koalas.

It's not a new claim, either -- the AKF announced that it "believes Koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia" back in May, well before the latest bushfires began.

"The AKF thinks there are no more than 80,000 Koalas in Australia," AKF chairman Deborah Tabart announced at the time.

The source for this figure is not clear, and it's much lower than recent scientific estimates. The Australian Koala Foundation did not respond immediately to The Feed's request for comment.

Dr. Christine Hosking, a koala expert at the University of Queensland, has fact-checked the AKF's claims in past. She told The Feed that it's just not accurate to say that koalas are functionally extinct -- far from it, in fact.

"In ecology it's always grey -- there's never black and white, because koalas are very hard to track and count," Dr Christine Hosking told The Feed.

But to say they're functionally extinct all over Australia, you can't possibly say that, because in some places they're doing well -- in some places they're over-abundant.

Hosking explained that koala populations vary significantly across Australia, to the point where koalas are over-abundant and even considered pests in parts of some southern states.

At the other end of the spectrum, koalas are listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

In 2012, Hosking was one of a group of experts who attempted to estimate koala population numbers in Australia. It's difficult to precisely count koala populations given that much of their habitat is inaccessible, but Hosking told The Feed the most recent expert estimates suggest that there are between 120,000 and 300,000 koalas in Australia.

That's very different to the number shared by the AKF. "They're very good at promoting the plight of the koala, but us researchers prefer to have scientific background before making a statement," Hosking said.

So how much damage have the bushfires done to koala populations?

While koalas definitely aren't functionally extinct in Australia, the recent bushfires in NSW and Queensland did take a significant toll on local populations.

Hosking told The Feed it will be some time before we know exactly how much damage the fires did.

"In the case of the bushfires, we need to wait a bit longer -- the fires are still burning," she said.

"We need to wait until the fires are finished, and then we can map the burnt areas with a scientific approach, and speak to local experts who know how many koalas were in those areas. As trees grow back, we'll have to look at how many koalas come back."

It's certainly been devastating for some populations in those bush areas, but you couldn't really quantify it yet. It will take a few years.

In the meantime, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has been racing to save koalas affected by the fires. So far the hospital has raised more than $1.5 million on GoFundMe.

For Australians who want to help save koalas, there's plenty to do.

Bushfires aren't the only threat to koala populations -- Hosking pointed out that deforestation and land loss for farming, agriculture and urbanisation is a threat to koalas all year round.

"They just can't live without forest, it's that simple," she told The Feed.

While koalas have been listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) in NSW, the ACT and Queensland since 2012, Hosking said that government action has been lacking.

Unless you get serious about protecting their habitat, nothing will change.

"The average person needs to pressure our decision-makers into saving habitat, and stop it being cleared. That's the key thing, it really is. Until decision makers at all levels of government take that seriously, we're going to keep losing koalas."

Hosking also urged people to keep their dogs under control and drive safely, as dogs and cars are two major threats to koalas living in urban areas.

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