Following Massive Fires, Are Koalas Now “Functionally Extinct”?

November 23, 2019

Climate deniers cheering, I’m sure.

If you wondered about what happened to the burned Koala I posted on a few days ago, there’s a follow up above.


As Australia experiences record-breaking drought and bushfires, koala populations have dwindled along with their habitat, leaving them “functionally extinct.”

The chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, estimates that over 1,000 koalas have been killed from the fires and that 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed.

Recent bushfires, along with prolonged drought and deforestation has led to koalas becoming “functionally extinct” according to experts.

Functional extinction is when a population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable. While some individuals could produce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely and highly 


Animal campaigners say that koala numbers have fallen so low that the animal is “functionally extinct”. 

The Australian Koala Foundation says there are fewer than 80,000 koalas left in the wild. 

Although 80,000 sounds like a lot, the foundation says these koalas are unlikely to produce a new generation. 

‘Functionally extinct’ describes an animal population which has so few pairs that they are unlikely to produce a new generation.

It can also describe an animal which is breeding in such few numbers that they are more likely to become ill from disease.

The koala is a popular symbol of Australia and was even a mascot for the Commonwealth Games last year in Queensland Australia.

Although they are sometimes referred to as called koala bears, the koala is actually a marsupial. 

Koalas are dying out because many of the forests where they live are being destroyed. Heatwaves caused by climate change are also a major factor. 

Recent studies said thousands of koalas died from dehydration in an intense heatwave in Australia. 

UPDATE: New Scientist:

Who has said koalas are “functionally extinct”?
The Australian Koala Foundation, which lobbies for the animals’ protection, has put out a press release stating that it “believes koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia”. The release triggered a flurry of worried headlines.

So are they?
No, although many populations of koalas are falling sharply due to habitat loss and global warming.

Could they go extinct?
There is no danger of koalas going extinct in Australia overall, says biologist Christine Adams-Hosking of the University of Queensland, who has studied the marsupials’ plight. “But at the rate of habitat clearing that is going on, we are going to see increased local population extinctions,” she says.

Why has the AKF made this claim now?
The claim was made on the eve of elections in Australia in which environmental issues such as climate change have become a big issue. The AFK has called on politicians to act. “There’s a lot of politics going on, and somehow the koala gets involved,” says Adams-Hosking.

What does functionally extinct even mean?
The term is used in several different senses. It can mean that a species has declined to a point where it can no longer plays the role it once did in a ecosystem, with significant effects on that ecosystem. Some define it even more narrowly, saying a species is functionally extinct when its decline leads to the extinction of other species. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

There are more meanings?
Yes. Others use it – arguably incorrectly – to describe a species that is probably extinct but we can’t be sure. For instance, when researchers failed to find any river dolphins in China in 2006, they declared the baiji “functionally extinct”.

Surely this isn’t what the AKF meant?
No. The term is also used to describe a species where there are still many surviving individuals but the species is thought to be doomed in the long-term because, say, of the loss of genetic diversity. This is the sense of functionally extinct meant by the AKF. “This is a scientific term to describe ‘beyond the point of recovery’,” wrote the head of the AKF, Deborah Tabart, in a blog post.

But koalas haven’t passed this point?
Some local populations of koalas are indeed heading towards functional extinction, says Adams-Hosking. “But Australia is a big country, there are koalas all over the place and some of them are doing fine,” she says. “You can’t just make that statement broad-brush.” Adams-Hoskins also questions the AKF’s claim that just 80,000 koalas remain. In 2016, she and colleagues estimated that there are around 300,000.

18 Responses to “Following Massive Fires, Are Koalas Now “Functionally Extinct”?”

  1. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    When I visited Australia back in 2002 I took a wildlife tour on Kangaroo Island (south of Adelaide) we spotted two koala mums with their joeys in neighboring trees. I just looked at the KI website and discovered the population there, at 25,000, was considered too high for the vegetation available and they introduced a contraceptive/sterilization program as a cull.

    (The island itself is stressed by a saline aquifer such that planting trees makes it worse.)

    • Bryson Brown Says:

      We were in Oz in 2002 as well, on a sabbatical at Melbourne, and visited Kangaroo Island then. The amazing wildlife (kangaroos and wallabees were everywhere, fur seals on the rocky shore) was wonderful. But one thing that also struck us (in a sad way) was the level of road kill along the highway…

  2. This story is so sad. Combine what we’ve done to the koalas with the orangutans and countless other species we’ve driven or are driving to extinction, and our own species’ all but exponential population growth and well…., it’s depressing. Are we a cancer?

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Are we a cancer? Not to speak for Mother Nature, but the answer is YES, and her “immune system” WILL deal with us sooner or later. It’s too bad that so many undeserving critters like Koalas and Orangutans will go with us.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Exponential? Hardly.

      Human population growth rate has been shrinking for 50 years. It’s expected by most population organizations to peak and stabilize or start to decline by 2050 (30 years from now) except for parts of Africa. But Africa is one place the effects of climate catastrophe and the larger ecological crisis are being felt first and worst, and the most likely thing is that significant parts of Earth will suffer such effects numbers of people will start to decline globally before 2050. Most of the big emitter countries in the world are now pursuing policies that if followed by the world (which they essentially are) will lead to 4-5°C over preindustrial temperature and cause 80-90% of humans to die out. (India is the only major exception, leading toward 2°.)

      If followed by all, the policies of the US, China, Russia, Canada, and Australia would lead to 4-5°C rise

      ”Warming of 4°C or more could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%
      Brown, P & Caldeira, K 2017, ‘Greater future global warming inferred from Earth’s recent energy budget’, Nature, vol. 552, pp. 45-50. 

      In any case, the richest 10% of people on Earth emit half of human GHGs, and the poorest 6 billion emit only about 20% and cause a similar proportion of other ecological damage. This crisis is being caused entirely by the rich; growth in the number of people has almost nothing to do with any of our global ecological problems.

      • dumboldguy Says:

        “…ALL BUT exponential population growth” means he same as “approaching but not quite exponential growth”, and Davey S is not exactly correct when he says that—human population HAS grown at an exponential rate, humans consume and destroy the planet’s resources at an unsustainable rate, and those two facts taken together mean ultimate disaster. Jeffy is grinding an ax about the past 50 years and a projection from there—-he is failing to see the forest for the trees (again).

        • jimbills Says:

          Population growth rates slow when modern economies become too expensive to have many children. The cost of health care rises, education costs rise, cost of housing increases, and so on. Having children just costs a ton of money – so people in these economies “choose” to have fewer children. Additionally, the cost of living increases their work load, and more hours that could be dedicated to child rearing are spent at labor.

          Really, people decide having 1-3 children is all they can afford.

          But with these economies, the impacts on the environment per capita increases significantly. So, say we cap at 10 billion people in 2050 or so. But with that, economic growth increases the environmental footprint of each of those 10 billion.

          Additionally, we’re talking about the last few decades in trends vs. longer time periods. Your linked chart shows one. Here’s another:

          Might as well be exponential.

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Semantic arguments about “functional extinction” aside, does anyone think that Koalas and many other critters are NOT at extreme risk in AUS? More dithering here by scientists who are afraid to get anywhere near rational fatalism and therefore try to be bright-sided. Thanks for nothing.

    • Paul Whyte Says:

      The Koala has been threatened for the last 50 years. The last 3 years have seen an 800% increase in land clearing in private areas under the Liberal (“conserative”, one needs to spit at this point as there is nothing either liberal or conservative about these people!) Hard right governments in Australia mean climate denial, if it does not move, dig it up, if it is alive shoot it, if it’s still kicking fuck it! Its culture war stuff where about 30% of the population are under the play of the Murdoch press stupidity machinery. (They are sports fans/ meatheads)

      The NSW original land clearing meant that one had to clear a plot of land to possess it or it was still crown land (was aboriginal land till they were either shot, moved on or fucked). It meant that 99% of NSW forests were lost in the farmland area.

      What is left are state forests that there are increasing proposals to either clear or wood chip. Yes these people are that stupid that paper pulp is more important than native bush with live Koalas living in them. That is the crisis. The loss of native forests. Under Liberals, it could be complete loss going forward.

      Koalas can only live/eat gum trees so where pine goes in Koalas die in that area. When it comes to stupid one should stress that it is bone stupid that is being dealt with. Liberals are people who can not think in a prescribed area of something like but it’s for-profit -glowey eyed stupidity. As if all for-profit has to go ahead as planned.

      If big oil needs a meat processing plant for climate protesters to be made into sauce then, Australian Liberals will find a way to make this money-spinner go ahead.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The oil glands in eucalyptus leaves mean even healthy trees burn easily (commercial groves in Portugal contributed to their wildfires). Koalas predominantly eat eucalyptus leaves.

  4. Paul Whyte Says:

    For those who are not Australians reading this. It takes courage to pick up a Koala bear and rescue it!

    They drive their claws into hard bark to climb trees and move around at height. That takes great strength. She used a cloth and it was not just for the bear!

    They treat you as a tree when you pick them up. They will powerfully hold an arm or a chest and penetrate “bark” to stay stable! I’ve seen yanks pick up a healthy Koala for a cuddle and after 20 seconds scream with blood pouring all over their clothes. The injuries can be very serious!

    Most parts of Australia are not without their hazard.

    These creatures are not for the untrained or unwarned. They are a marvel though! They are much loved by Aussies.

    Aussies are captured by what is called locally – bogans. You call them red necks in the US. People who don’t bother to learn anything before they mouth off. Politics here is about appealing to the bogans and keeping them as confused as possible.

  5. jimbills Says:

    Here’s a new low for Michael Shellenberger:
    Forbes: Why Everything They Say About Climate Change Is Wrong.

    Cherry-picked details and biased reasoning with plenty of straw men, all to reach an airhead conclusion that “there’s plenty of room between apocalypse and denial”.

    I placed it on this post because he mentions koalas.

    • J4Zonian Says:

      Seems about the same level as always for Shellenberger; he’s just one of the (US) breakthrough boys.

      “I think the part of it that is generational is that millennials and people, in Gen Z, and all these folks that come after us are looking up and we’re like, the world is gonna end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,” charged AOC. “And your biggest issue, your biggest issue is how are going to pay for it? — and like this is the war, this is our World War II.” [1]

      She’s been quoted often as calling it a joke, which is not strictly accurate, but is a whole lot closer than the monstrous evil idiots who take it literally and use it to attack both AOC and climate science. You can tell by the “we’re like…” part that it’s not meant as exact and literal science, and if you can’t, or refuse to admit you can, we’d like you to come back to reality.

      It’s also been said that she’s repeated the claim and this is given as an example:

      “Climate change is here + we’ve got a deadline: 12 years left to cut emissions in half,” she captioned a tweet promoting the video, last month. [1]

      “Around 2030 we will be in a position to set off an irreversible chain reaction beyond human control that will lead to the end of our civilization as we know it.”[2]

      Of course, that IS literally true, at least as far as the overly conservative, overly optimistic IPCC is concerned. It is—er, was—a consensus of science and scientists that unfortunately has been superseded by advances in knowledge and unexpected (at least by their certain accounting) worsening. A new consensus is coalescing around the situation being about twice as bad as that; iow, we do indeed have something like 12 years to prevent the collapse of civilization and the extinction of millions of species—by reducing human GHG emissions by at least 90% in that time, and the rest soon after. Of course, physics and ecology being what they are, all that will really only happen gradually and not quite so soon. It will be very bad very soon and worse after that, but AOC knows both that the world is not ending in 12 years and more about when it is than any of her psychopathic nincompoop detractors in both halves of the corporate duopoly party.



      • Paul Whyte Says:

        That really was a shocking post from Shellenberger! To say that tipping points can be passed and its not a disaster!

        When the iPCC makes announcements you know that these are consensus statements and that often it will be worse to much worse!

        • J4Zonian Says:

          I agree about the IPCC. It’s a noble organization that’s labored determinedly, but whose people and structure just haven’t proved equal to the monstrous evil of those responsible. They’re responsible for the hundreds of millions of deaths and hundreds of thousands of extinctions—at least—that are now inevitable in the very near future.

          Yes, I guess S’s piece was shocking. Although sometimes I think I’m beyond being shocked by any lies these psychotic, psychopathic, climate denying delayalists tell, every once in a while I find I’m not. This isn’t one of those times. Shellenberger has spread this kind of vile nonsense many times. It’s pretty much his job. It’s pretty much what they do at the Breakthrough Inst. he co-founded.

          He and Nordhaus took the Bjorn McBorgerson path to success and they’ve all raked in millions. A lot of it’s from the huge right wing network of PR firms and dark money sources. They call themselves environmentalists but are the polar opposite; the label gives them and the media that use them as sources cover for saying obscene, ridiculous, anti-environmental things about climate and other ecological issues. Whether they do it for money, ideological or psychological reasons or all 3, including their right wing economic delusions, probably is unknowable, especially by them. (S’s article also illustrates the bigmanlymachine bias that often accompanies those 3.)

          To fix this we need to remove the right wing duopoly from power, radically equalize politically and economically, change the profit basis of corporations, and reverse the media concentration that’s been going on for decades. And we need to implement an emergency Green New Deal so civilization can stay cohesive enough to finish all these.

          • dumboldguy Says:

            So, Jeffy, are you going to vote for Warren? She has the best plans for accomplishing all that you want to see happen.

  6. jimbills Says:

    ‘Are We Going To Talk About It?’ Australians Wonder When Climate Change Will Come Up:

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: