A Living Australian Icon
A living Australian icon, the koala is one of the world’s most loved animals. There are a multitude of dangers to the Koala survival, however, together as a community, we can all play our part to save the Koala. The biology, social structure and genetic diversity of the koala are all important factors to understand how the wider community can play a key role in the survival of the species. In regard to conservation, koalas are defined as an umbrella species. This means that to conserve koalas is to effectively conserve all of the other animals which live around (or underneath) them. In terms of attracting funding for the many koala conservation projects, koalas are regarded as a flagship species, which is like a charismatic ambassador for their environment.
Because the koala’s habitat comprises eucalypt forests, they live in some of the most fire-prone environments in the world. “Intense prescribed burns or wildfires that scorch or burn the tree canopy” have been identified as a key threat to koala populations. How fire affects koala decline or recovery depends on the scale, intensity and frequency of fires.
High genetic diversity is important for good health and survivability of animals, because having a broad range of genes affords individuals better resistance to varying conditions, diseases and climate. Genetic diversity is highest when populations of koalas are connected by habitat. When a koala population is isolated from other populations, genetic diversity is limited to the genes of the animals in that population. Potentially, good genes can be lost and poor genetic makeup can remain due to inbreeding. With no recruitment of new koalas with potentially beneficial genes, koala populations can decrease in general wellbeing, and become extinct. When these extinction events occur across a series of these small fragmented populations, we see total extinction on a broader scale.
Prior to European settlement, millions of koalas inhabited Australia. Now there could be fewer than 300,000. Although koalas live in National Parks and State Forests, a vast number occur privately-owned land. One reason for this is that Koalas prefer the fertile lands where people like to live. Unfortunately, current legislation allows the removal of koala habitat on privately-owned properties. In the Hastings-Macleay area, a variety of eucalypts are important food trees for local Koalas including Tallowwood, Swamp Mahogany, Forest Red Gum, Scribbly Gum, and Grey Gum.
Habitat loss and fragmentation is the overarching cause of direct threats to koalas such as motor vehicle strike, dog attacks, and increases in disease due to underlying poor condition. When habitat is removed or fragmented, or separated by roads, agriculture or fencing, koalas’ home ranges are forced closer together, overlapping, with a reduction in size and quality. This increases competition between individuals, and decreases the amount of time they need to forage and rest. Therefore, there is a decrease in the overall condition and general health of individuals and populations.