A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie on November 2, 2019 (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)

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Koalas are “functionally extinct” in the recent Australian bushfires.

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Australia is experiencing record-breaking droughts and bushfires in 2019. The severity of the devastating fires can be seen through the plight of the koalas caught in them. While koalas rescued from the fires are being treated for burnt skin and dehydration, another worldwide worry has cropped up, as an Australian conservation group warns that these bushfires have left koala populations “functionally extinct.” Seeing the adorable gray marsupials loved all over the world mentioned in the same sentence as “extinct” has caused a mass frenzy. But are they really extinct amid the fires? Not exactly, as that’s not what “functionally extinct” means. Here’s why we shouldn’t panic but instead take this as a serious warning to save our furry friends.

Are Koalas Functionally Extinct? AKF Says So

In May 2019, the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) released a statement that caused global hysteria among koala lovers. AKF is a local conservation group that advocates for and works towards the preservation and protection of koalas.

“The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) believes Koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia,” read the statement’s first line.

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The statement was released on the eve of the Australian federal election on May 18, 2019. Conservationists with this group intended to raise the topic of protection of koalas in the electoral discussions.

In the wake of the bushfires in Australia over the past month, AKF’s statements have resurfaced. However, the panic that has ensued may cause people to lose sight of the bigger picture. Koalas aren’t extinct, at least not yet.

The AKF, however, does warn that koala populations are rapidly declining because of habitat loss and climate change.

What Is Functionally Extinct?

Back in May, AKF estimated that there are “no more than 80,000 koalas in Australia,” making the species “functionally extinct.” The term AKF uses can be applied in multiple situations. Nonetheless, it speaks of a critical situation that needs serious attention.

Functionally extinct can primarily imply three situations:

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One is where either fossil records or historical records of a species’ existence cease.

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Another is where the population of the species has reduced to the point where its presence or influence in the larger ecosystem is negligible.

A third and more specific definition of “functionally extinct” is when an animal population is so limited that the species can no longer reproduce. In a sense, it implies that the species’ future is bleak in the long-term.

The second description has been used to define the status of dingo populations in Australia. Being a top predator, dingoes had an influence on the ecosystem in terms of the species they preyed on. But their numbers have reduced so drastically that their hunting no longer impacts the ecosystem.

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Koalas aren’t predators. They feed on toxic eucalyptus leaves, spend the majority of the day sleeping, and occasionally make screeching sounds that seem so unlike this cute fuzzball.

But they still have a major influence on the ecosystem that goes back millions of years, according to fossil records. They are essential to maintain the health of eucalyptus forests and their droppings make for nutrient cycling.

Koalas being functionally extinct could mean their population is declining such that reproduction would be difficult in the near future. Although they’re still breeding, koalas suffer from inbreeding that can limit genetic variation and future viability. Additionally, koalas have a slow breeding rate, with females being able to produce one baby joey every 18 months.

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The AKF seemed to be referring to this predicament when they used the term “functionally extinct.” They called upon the policymakers in Australia to formulate a recovery plan to protect koalas and their genetic variation along with their habitats.

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How Many Koalas Are Left in the World 2019?

It’s very difficult to give an exact figure since the country’s koala population can’t be calculated with accuracy. The 80,000 figure by AFK, however, paints a grim picture that koala populations are on a sharp decline if nothing is done to protect them.

Christine Adams-Hosking, a biologist with the University of Queensland, has previously fact-checked AFK on their claims. On its election-eve statement, Hosking said that koalas are not in danger of going extinct across Australia overall.

In fact, it would be premature to label them functionally extinct. She explains that koala populations vary distinctly in different parts of the country. In some parts of Australia, particularly in the Southern regions, koala populations are so “overabundant” that they could be considered pests there.

Hosking states that recent studies by experts estimate the koala population in Australia is between 120,000 and 300,000. She does, however, say, “at the rate of habitat clearing that is going on, we are going to see increased local population extinctions.”

While they are not an endangered status yet, koalas have been listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) in New South Wales (NSW). Their greatest threat currently is habitat loss and conservationists’ fear that if it isn’t tackled, it wouldn’t take long for them to be truly functionally extinct. Hosking adds that government action in preservation efforts has been lacking.

Koalas Suffer during the Australian Bushfires

The AFK warning about koalas has caused widespread panic as Australia is grappling with a severe bushfire season. While the land down under is prone to bushfires during this time of the year, experts claim this year has been particularly devastating, owing to multiple factors like climate change.

Not only scientists, but also first responders dealing with the fires say that climate change has made the bushfire season deadlier. With more than 1.65 hectares hazed in the flames, NSW is the worst hit.

The koala populations in NSW and Queensland have taken a severe hit in the bushfires. We, however, won’t know the extent of the damage until after the bushfires are under control.

Experts already predict that hundreds of koalas have perished in the fires. It’s feared that it would take years to recover the population of koalas through breeding.

Efforts to Save Koalas On

Koalas and other animals have suffered charred skin and dehydration in the bushfires. But first responders and locals are risking their lives to save these adored creatures.

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, in collaboration with other organizations, has organized a fundraiser to save the marsupials. The GoFundMe page has raised over $1.6 million, crossing the $25,000 goal.

The generous donations will not only go towards the rescue and treatment of wildlife affected by the blaze, but also set up a wild koala breeding program.

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