WWF report finds 71pc decline in koala numbers across northern NSW bushfire-affected areas


A report released today shows a 71 per cent decline in koala populations across six locations in northern NSW, burned in last season’s bushfires.

The study was commissioned by the WWF (previously known as World Wildlife Fund) for Nature Australia and chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said the findings are devastating.

“Seventy-one per cent is a massive figure; three-quarters of the population in these areas have been hit by the fires and lost,” he said.

Specialist koala ecologist Stephen Phillips undertook the study, which he said was the first study to quantify the impact of the bushfires on koala populations.

A man in a high-vis shirt looks up a tree while measuring it's burnt trunk with a measuring tape.
NSW ecologist Stephen Phillips in the Lake Innes State Conservation Area.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

It compares population data collected before the bushfires to data collected following the fires.

“If we don’t and we just proceed with our normal activities, whether it’s logging or development in peri-urban areas, and we’re having direct impacts on the relic koala populations, then we could simply be exacerbating the problems for these remaining populations.”

Survival impacted by severity of fires

In total, 123 sites across six locations from Ballina in the north to Forster in the south were examined as part of the study.

A map of northern NSW, with six sites pointed out.
The 123 sites surveyed stretch from Forster to Ballina.(Supplied: WWF Australia)

The team looked for unburnt droppings below koala food trees to determine if koalas had survived the fires.

Some koala populations fared better than others.

At Kiwarrak, south of Taree, no koalas were found and nearby at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline in occupancy.

At Lake Innes State Conservation Area near Port Macquarie the decline was 34 per cent.

Dr Phillips said the study also found the severity of the fires had an impact on survival rates.

“It meant that in areas that had perhaps a light fire, or the fire had just gone through the understory and didn’t really scorch the canopy, that animals were surviving and that’s the key to recovery.”

Dr Stephen Phillips holds out a piece of burnt koala scat (faecal pellet)
A burnt koala dropping, known as scat.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

An ‘international’ tragedy

Dr Phillips says koalas now need to be reclassified as an endangered species to ensure the species’ survival.

“Given the events of last spring and summer, and given the events leading up to that, the drought, we’re in no doubt now that koalas in NSW are an endangered species,” he said.

“And they really need to be listed as that.

“Not that it will necessarily make any difference but what it goes in to how much of the population we’ve lost in the last decade or so.

Mr O’Gorman also raised concerns legislation passed in the Lower House of Parliament a few days ago would “fast-track extinction”.

“The chance to put strong environmental laws when Parliament resumes in October is going to be a critical part to saving these koala populations and others as well,” he said.

The report has been submitted for peer review.



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