Koalas Are Declared ‘Functionally Extinct’ In Australia, As There Aren’t Enough Breeding Pairs Left

'Functionally extinct' means that the animal's numbers have declined to a point where they may be beyond recovery.

A koala in a Eucalyptus tree.
Jesiane / Pixabay

'Functionally extinct' means that the animal's numbers have declined to a point where they may be beyond recovery.

An Australian advocacy organization has declared that koalas are “functionally extinct,” meaning that there aren’t enough breeding pairs left to sustain future generations, Sky News reports. However, a scientist says that while the animal faces an uncertain future, it’s too early to discuss extinction.

Koalas, colloquially called “koala bears” — even though they’re marsupials, like possums, and not bears — are as much a symbol of Australia as boomerangs and the Sydney Opera House. Unfortunately, their numbers have declined over the centuries, initially due to poaching — 8 million of the critters were killed for their fur between 1890 and 1927 — and more recently via climate change and habitat loss. Now, only an estimated 80,000 remain.

That may seem like a large number, considering that there are some species whose only living specimens can be counted on one hand. But The Australian Koala Foundation’s chairman, Deborah Tabart, says that this number is not enough to sustain future populations of the animal. Her advocacy group has declared the Australian koala “functionally extinct,” which means that the species is beyond the point of recovery.

Tabart says the species is on the precipice of extinction: droughts and heat waves brought on by climate change have decimated the species, and deforestation has crowded it out of its natural habitat. One disease, she says, could completely wipe out the endangered animals.

What’s more, she says, Australia is currently without any laws with which to protect the endangered animals, and she’s calling on the next prime minister to take the lead. Further, she calls on Australia to take a page out of the United States’ book, enacting something like the Bald Eagle Act. The Bald Eagle Act has been credited with successfully bringing bald eagles back from the brink of extinction, and Tabard sees it as a potential template for legislation to protect koalas.

“The Bald Eagle Act was successful because there was political motive to ensure their icon did not go extinct. It is time for the koala to be afforded the same respect.”

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However, Tabard’s concerns about the plight of koalas may be overstated, per biologist Christine Adams-Hosking of the University of Queensland, via New Scientist. While she shares Tabard’s concerns, particularly in regard to climate change and deforestation, she says that declaring the animal “functionally extinct” is jumping the gun.

“Australia is a big country, there are koalas all over the place and some of them are doing fine.You can’t just make that statement broad-brush.”

She says that the extinction of local koala populations is absolutely a concern, but that, overall, the koala is far from extinct. What’s more, she rejects Tabard’s claim that there are only 80,000 koalas left in the wild in Australia. She and her team estimated in 2016 that there were 300,000 koalas in the wild.