Sat, Apr 14, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Koalas could disappear within a decade

Environmentalists say urban development, genetic mutations, chlamydia and drought have pushed the cute marsupials to the edge of extinction


Extreme drought, ferocious bushfires and urban development are killing Australia's koalas and could push the species towards extinction within a decade, environmentalists are warning.

Alarms about the demise of the iconic and peculiar animal, which sleeps about 20 hours per day and eats only the leaves of the eucalyptus tree, have been raised before.

But Deborah Tabart, chief executive officer of the Australia Koala Foundation, believes the animal's plight is as bad as she has seen it in her 20 years as a koala advocate.

"In southeast Queensland we had them listed as a vulnerable species which could go to extinction within 10 years. That could now be seven years," she said. "The koala's future is obviously bleak."

Southeastern Queensland has the strongest koala populations in the vast country, meaning extinction in this area spells disaster for the future of the species, Tabart said.

The biggest threat is the loss of habitat as a result of road building and development on Australia's eastern coast -- traditional koala country. The joke, Tabart said, is that koalas enjoy good real estate and are often pushed out of their habitat by farming or development.

"I've driven pretty much the whole country and I just see environmental vandalism and destruction everywhere I go," she said. "It's a very sorry tale. There are [koala] management problems all over the country."

Massive bushfires which raged in the country's south for weeks during the Australian summer, burning a million hectares of land, would also have killed thousands of koalas.

Meanwhile there is the worst drought in a century, genetic mutations from decades of inbreeding in some populations, and the widespread incidence of chlamydia, a type of venereal disease which affects fertility, to further cut koala numbers.

Moreover, the animals are often fatally attacked by pet dogs.

"In southeast Queensland the koalas are just in people's backyards and the dogs just munch on them," Tabart said.

Confusing the issue is the lack of data on the number of koalas in the wild. Figures range from 100,000 animals to several million. What is known is that there were once millions of them ranged along eastern Australia.

The hunting and slaughter for their furs in the 1920s eradicated the species in the state of South Australia and pushed Victorian populations close to extinction.

Public outrage over the killing of the big-eyed "bears" put an end to the practice but Victorian stocks were unfortunately later replenished with in-bred animals, leading to a lack of genetic diversity in that state.

As a result, genetic problems such as missing testicles and deformed "pin" heads have emerged in Victorian koalas, said University of Queensland academic Frank Carrick.

Carrick, who leads a koala study project at the university, estimates the national population of the marsupial at about 1 million. And while he doesn't believe the animal will be extinct within a decade, he acknowledges that numbers are contracting.

"Though we don't really have an accurate figure on how many koalas there are in Australia right now, we do know one thing -- that it's going down. Because we keep chopping down trees and their food source," he said.

Carrick said it will take 40 to 50 years for the koala to sufficiently recover from the impact of the latest Victorian bushfires, drought and development.

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