Around 40 percent of the koala area is currently threatened by bushfires, which endanger the continued existence of the fluffy little bears. By 2070, this number could have risen to 45 percent, as researchers have now discovered. But not only the flames themselves could lead to the death of numerous koalas, but also the resulting lack of food and the dispersal of individual populations. Koala protection is therefore facing even greater challenges than it already is.
The gray, fluffy koala is one of Australia’s most iconic marsupials, but its life isn’t all about leisurely munching on eucalyptus. The small bear faces numerous problems, including shrinking habitat, attacks by dogs, as well as car accidents and bushfires. The Australian Koala Foundation therefore estimates that there are now fewer than 100,000 koalas left in the wild.
Tierra del Fuego Australia
In order to find out more about the endangerment of the koala, researchers led by Farzin Shabani from the University of Qatar have now taken a look into the future of the marsupial. Specifically, they determined in which koala areas the risk of bushfires is increased and how much these risk areas will have spread by 2070. To do this, the team created maps that map fire susceptibility across Australia, taking into account factors such as drought, temperature and proximity to the nearest river. By estimating these conditions for the future, Shabani and his colleagues were also able to determine how much these risk areas may have expanded by 2070 and how much they will overlap with koala habitats by then.
The result: 14.9 percent of the Australian continent currently has a high to very high susceptibility to fire, which also affects 39.95 percent of koala areas, as the researchers report. By 2070, these fire areas are likely to have become even more widespread, meaning that 15.66 percent of Australia and 44.61 percent of koala habitats could be at risk of bushfires. According to Shabani and his colleagues, the future looks particularly bad in the states of South Australia and Queensland. By 2070, 65.24 or 89.11 percent of koala areas could be particularly vulnerable to bushfires.
Poor prospects for koalas
“Forest fires will increasingly impact koala populations in the future. If this iconic and endangered marsupial is to be protected, conservation strategies must adapt to this threat,” says Shabani. Accordingly, the koalas will not only fall victim to the flames directly, but will also die as a result of the fires, such as fragmented habitats or lack of food. Smaller and isolated populations in particular could become locally extinct in the future, warns Shabani.
But even if not a single fire reaches the koala area in the next 50 years, things will still be bad for the furry little bears, as the researchers have found. The data shows that the habitat suitable for koalas could shrink by up to 62 percent of its previous size by 2070. Koala protection in the next few decades is already facing major challenges, even without bushfires.
Source: Flinders University; Specialist article: Environmental Technology & Innovation, doi: 10.1016/j.eti.2023.103331