Koalas could soon be listed as endangered in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory after bushfires smashed already struggling populations and destroyed precious habitat.
A federal panel of threatened species experts has recommended the marsupial’s status be upgraded from vulnerable in each of the three jurisdictions.
Josey Sharrad from the International Fund for Animal Welfare described the move as bittersweet.
“It confirms our fears koalas are on the road to extinction and need greater protections if they are going to survive into the future,” she said.
“Koalas were living on a knife-edge before the fires with numbers in severe decline due to land clearing, drought, disease, car strikes and dog attacks.
“The bushfires were the final straw, hitting at the heart of already struggling koala populations and critical habitat.”
Koala populations in NSW have declined by between 33% and 61% since 2001 and at least 6,400 were killed in the Black Summer bushfires.
Koalas could be extinct in NSW by 2050 unless urgent action is taken.
Queensland’s koala population has dropped by at least 50% since 2001 due to deforestation, drought and bushfires.
Koala populations in both states, along with those in the ACT, were listed as vulnerable in 2012.
They have since suffered ongoing pressures, including the consequences of land clearing.
The threatened species committee has invited public submissions on whether the native animals should have their status lifted from vulnerable to endangered in all three jurisdictions.
The panel will provide its final advice to the federal environment minister by 30 October.
Sharrad said a national koala recovery plan was long overdue.
“We urge governments to take immediate action to address the key threats driving the species towards extinction,” she said.
“Koalas are an iconic species loved the world over. We simply cannot afford let them go extinct on our watch.”
Humane Society International, which with the International Fund for Animal Welfare and WWF nominated the koala for an endangered listing, said swift implementation could be the last hope for diminishing populations.
“This is news that no Australian can be proud of but we still have time to take action” the organisation’s senior campaign manager, Alexia Wellbelove, said.
Earlier this year, the federal government announced an $18m plan to help protect the troubled native animal.
Environment minister Sussan Ley said a national audit would help decide where to direct funding and support.
But critics complained the koala census was not enough to save the marsupial.
The audit is expected to cost $2m with the rest of the package going towards health research, medical support and habitat restoration.