The Australian Koala Foundation has deemed September 29, “Save the Koala Day,” in recognition of the vulnerability of this Australian icon.
A hot, dry summer is forecast for year’s end, the combined effect of global warming, a declared El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IoD).
Many will look to a nearby beach or pool to keep cool or perhaps some clearing around the home to reduce fire risk. But what will koalas do? Where can they go?
Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) depend on eucalyptus (mainly Eucalyptus spp.) for both shelter and diet, and are at the top of the food chain for the plants they consume.
According to the Australian Koala Foundation, 80% of koala habitat was lost after European colonisation, with the remaining 20% largely unprotected, and most of that is on privately-owned land.
A species already decimated by fire and listed as endangered in New South Wales, Queensland and the ACT since 2022, the koala and its habitats were the subject of a recent study at Flinders University that mapped the fire susceptibility of areas suitable for the plants that koalas depend on.
The maps demonstrated some 62% of suitable koala habitat will be lost by 2070 – and that was without considering the effects of fire.
Some 39.6% of koala habitat was found highly susceptible to fire, increasing to 44.61% by 2070.
The maps mirror expected trends in fire risk to Australian vegetation generally but provide a sobering forecast for the koala.
“Wildfires will increasingly impact koala populations,“ says lead author of the research Assistant Professor Farzin Shabani.
“If this iconic and vulnerable marsupial is to be protected, conservation strategies need to be adapted to deal with this threat,” Shabani says.
“It is crucial to strike a balance between ensuring that koala habitats and populations are not completely destroyed by fire while also allowing for forest rejuvenation and regeneration through periodic burns.”
The findings have koala conservationists and experts worried, particularly regarding hazard reduction burning, the main strategy to reduce bush fire hazards in koala habitat.
High intensity canopy fires can eliminate koalas from a forest, making some koala advocates wary of prescribed burns.
That includes chair of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart.
“In my 33 years as chair of KFA I’ve seen more prescribed burns gone wrong than you can poke a stick at,” she said. “Burns are often done to protect infrastructure, instead of being about how this country is going to deal with fire.”
Tabart is calling for a regional approach to fire management, one that taps into local knowledge.
“I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all, it comes back to individual [fire] management plans.
“I believe every single council, if they really want to protect their constituents, must have a fire expert who understands that landscape.”
Research shows koalas will walk many kilometres to relocate after fire, with their chances of survival increased if they can flee to a neighbouring habitat that has previously burned.
But with extensive and ongoing loss and fragmentation of habitat across eastern Australia, escape is increasingly difficult.
Tabart argued for local plans of management in a 2011 Senate inquiry, she says.
“If our councils across the country have koalas, if all of those people were given funds for a koala plan of management that also looked at threats like fire and feral animals, then you would solve so many other problems in one neat package with the koala as the flagship for conservation.”
The Greenlight Project is a year-long look at how regional Australia is preparing for and adapting to climate change.