Hanging on: The lost koala near Gunnedah late last year. Photo: WWF-AustraliaJames, a sorghum farmer near Gunnedah, was used to seeing koalas in odd locations near his property, but the discovery of one clinging to the bull bar of his fertiliser truck late last year took the biscuit.
Tractors had been going all night, perhaps disorienting the “fully mature” specimen, who was found far from the nearest tree.
Efforts to unclasp the famously tight koala grip failed, so James carefully reversed his truck for two kilometres – so he couldn’t accidentally run it over – to woodland where the animal found a more familiar abode.
“I’ve seen them up power poles and even our shed [but] … I’ve never seen one on a vehicle,” James told Fairfax Media, declining to give his surname. “Hopefully it found a happy home somewhere.”
The chance of spotting a koala in any setting is getting less likely in NSW, with the state’s population shrinking by about a quarter over the last 20 years to about 36,000, according to a report released earlier this year by the state’s Chief Scientist.
National totals were about 330,000 but falling fast in areas such the Pillaga, where they have dropped 80 per cent since the 1990s.
“They are getting hit from all sides,” said Christine Adams-Hosking, a researcher from the University of Queensland, who released a report on koala numbers in that state and NSW for WWF-Australia in time for world Threatened Species Day on Friday.
Dr Adams-Hosking said coastal populations were at risk from increased urbanisation, while inland areas faced worsening threats from land clearing.
Looming over the top of both, climate change was already affecting both regions by pushing animals beyond natural tolerance levels while diminishing the range and nutrient value of their food trees, she said.
“A temperature of about 37.7 degrees is about the maximum they can tolerate, and we’re getting 10 days well into the 40s in some areas [with koala habitat],” Dr Adams-Hosking said. “There’s absolutely no doubt climate change is already hitting koalas.”
Gunnedah, for instance, lost 25 per cent of its koalas during the 2009 heatwaves, the WWF-Australia report noted.
Elsewhere, the rising human population in regions such as Port Macquarie-Hastings has put the future of koalas in doubt. Some 250 koalas – or more than 10 per cent of the local population – were being hospitalised a year, the report noted.
Cars, dog attacks and the spread of disease – apparently made worse by stress – were to blame in such areas, Dr Adams-Hosking said.
“Koalas are a flagship species giving an indication of what’s going so wrong in our environment,” she said. “It’s screaming at us.”
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton said the government had begun work on developing a broad-based effort to help stabilise and ultimately increase koala numbers.
These efforts included spending $10 million over five years to buy vital koala habitat, adding to the purchase in March 2016 of South Coast flora reserves totalling 120 square kilometres to “protect the last known local koala population”, she said.
Penny Sharpe, Labor’s environment spokeswoman, said koalas were “on track to become extinct in NSW by 2055”.
“Labor calls on the government to have a koala summit to bring together experts and all stakeholders to finalise a koala recovery plan,” Ms Sharpe said. “[ALP] will reverse the new land-clearing laws to place biodiversity protection at the centre of saving threatened species like the iconic koala.”
Mehreen Faruqi, the Greens NSW environment spokeswoman, said the government’s new land-clearing laws were “completely incompatible with any objective to prevent local koala population extinctions”.
“You can’t say that you want to protect local koala populations, then pass laws that do the opposite,” Dr Faruqi said. “We need a bold plan to permanently protect and conserve koala habitat, both at a local level as well as through expanding the National Parks system.”