Koala habitats under increasing bushfire threat in Australia

Koala habitats under increasing bushfire threat in Australia


Koala habitats under increasing bushfire threat in Australia

File photo shows a released healthy koala back into its colony on the outskirts of Brisbane, Australia.

Almost half of Australia’s koala habitats will be under high bushfire threat by 2070 as a result of climate change, a study has warned.

In a research published on Monday, a team led by researchers from Flinders University in South Australia generated fire susceptibility maps for the current day and for the year 2070.

They found that the proportion of the habitat of Australia’s iconic koalas that is highly susceptible to fires will rise from 39.5 percent currently to 44.6 percent by 2070 as the frequency and severity of bushfires rise due to climate change.

“Wildfires will increasingly impact koala populations in the future. If this iconic and vulnerable marsupial is to be protected, conservation strategies need to be adapted to deal with this threat,” Farzin Shabani, who led the research at Flinders University before moving to Qatar University, said in a media release.

“It is crucial to strike a balance between ensuring that koala habitats and populations are not completely destroyed by fire while also allowing for forest rejuvenation and regeneration through periodic burns.”

On a state-by-state basis, the research projected that 89.1 percent of the total koala habitat in South Australia and 65.2 percent in Queensland in northeast Australia will have high or very high fire susceptibility by 2070.

Koalas, also known as koala bears, was declared an endangered species under national environmental law in February 2022 after population decline due to land-clearing, drought and disease was exacerbated by the 2019/20 Black Summer bushfires.

A report published by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia in December 2020 estimated that more than 61,000 koalas perished in the fires, which burned more than 240,000 square kilometers of land across the country.

John Llewelyn, co-author of the study from the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University, said in Monday’s media release that the increasing severity of bushfires, which has been attributed to climate change, is making recovery from those events more difficult.

“Koalas may still be able to survive in areas highly susceptible to bushfires if their food sources can also withstand the fire-prone conditions, and if koalas can re-populate previously burnt-out areas from neighboring habitat, but this task is becoming more difficult due to habitat fragmentation and the increasingly large areas being burnt,” he said.

Experts have warned that most of Australia is facing a severe 2023/2024 summer bushfire threat.

In its spring outlook published earlier in September, the Bureau of Meteorology forecast that hot, dry conditions would continue across most of the country following a dry winter.