Australia are playing a key role in climate change as a large exporter and user of coal which emits greenhouse gases when burnt to create energy. So what’s this got to do with koalas?
Well, climate change is causing Australia to get hotter year upon year which isn’t ideal when you’re covered in thick fur. It’s now the norm for temperatures to reach high 40s for several days thanks to climate change, however koalas are much more comfortable at 37.7°C or lower as shown by koala expert, Dr Clive McAlpine from the University of Queensland. Their fluffy appearance gives koalas that cute and cuddly appeal that tourists die for but also makes them extremely vulnerable to heat stress and dehydration.
The iconic Australian marsupials are particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change because they are a habitat and food specialist. This means that climate change actually reduces the nutritional quality of the species of eucalypt that the koala eats because it makes the plants grow faster but reduces the protein levels through a process called carbon fertilisation. Koalas can’t simply overcome this problems by stuffing their faces with more of their favourite food because this would only speed up digestion and limit nutrient intake even more. Koalas are forced to go searching for food, putting them at risk from predators and cars which kill 4,000 koalas a year alone as their slow movements make them easy targets.
Eucalypt forest habitats are destroyed by wildfires and drought which are increasing in frequency and intensity because of climate change, leaving koalas homeless and hungry! Habitats are also being cleared to make way for coal mining, urban development, agriculture and logging which is “putting extra strain on the already declining koala population in New South Wales and Queensland” according to a spokesperson for the Wilderness Society.
No need to reach for the tissue box yet! There is still hope as the Australian Government created the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy in 2009 in an effort to save koalas after declaring them a ‘vulnerable’ species a decade earlier. But populations have been declining for the last 20 years which Dave Burgess of the Total Environment Centre, Sydney warns “unless meaningful action is taken to protect the koala habitat, it may get to the point where the species relies on extensive captive breeding programmes for its survival”. Efforts from organisations like the Australia Koala Foundation have begun by saving the eucalypt forests to help protect the natural koala habitat and help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, the government seem to care more about coal than koalas and the climate, and fail to recognise that koalas are a national symbol that attract millions of tourists and will have a significant knock on effect on the future economy if they face extinction.