Wildlife campaigners have declared that koalas are “functionally extinct” in Australia, after the destruction of 80% of their habitat in the recent, devastating bushfires on the east coast.

Deborah Tabart of the Australian Koala Foundation said that there are an estimated 18,000 koalas in New South Wales, and that the fires likely had a “massive impact” on their population.

She told the Daily Mail that over the past two months, an estimated 1000 of them have been killed across the state, as a result of fires and deforestation.

While there have been significant rescue and rehabilitation efforts, it is feared that this may be too little, too late for the survival of the species in the long term.

Functional extinction refers to a population that is no longer viable, or that no longer plays a significant role in the functioning of its ecosystem.

Eucalyptus leaves are the main source of nutrition for koalas, and Tabart said that even those that survived the fires will now struggle thanks to the devastation:

“Because of deforestation and now the bushfires, there is so little habitat left and trees with eucalyptus take months to grow back.”  

Tabart has urged the federal government to pass the Koala Protection Act, which is modeled after the Bald Eagle Protection Act from the U.S., and aims to safeguard their habitats. She said:

“[Koalas] are equivalent to the Great Barrier Reef. Everyone wants to touch a koala, so you would think the government would want to do something to save them. The plight of the koala now falls on the Prime Minister’s shoulders.”

Image: Getty Images / Tao Shelan