Australia has designated the koala an endangered species amid unprecedented pressure on the marsupials’ eucalyptus tree habitats across the country’s eastern states.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said there would be increased protection for the animal, classed as vulnerable only 10 years ago, in New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).
“The impact of prolonged drought, followed by the black summer bushfires, and the cumulative impacts of disease, urbanisation and habitat loss over the past twenty years have led to the advice,” Ley said in a statement on Friday.
Conservationists have long been calling for more support for the koala amid dramatic declines in populations across the country.
WWF-Australia, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and Humane Society International all proposed the listing to the government in April 2020 after research found population declines of about 50 percent in Queensland since 2001, and 62 percent in New South Wales.
WWF-Australia said the new designation was a “bittersweet outcome but a critical step” towards reversing those declines.
“The Endangered status of the koala means they and forest homes should be provided with greater protection under Australia’s national environment law,” the group said on Twitter. “Not only will this protect the iconic animal but many other species living alongside them.”
Ley said that in conjunction with the changed status, the government would begin work on a recovery plan for the koala supported by funding of 74 million Australian dollars ($52.9m).
Consideration of future development plans would take into account the potential effect on the animal, she said.
“This decision is a double-edged sword,” IFAW Oceania Regional Director Rebecca Keeble said in a statement. “We should never have allowed things to get to the point where we are at risk of losing a national icon. It is a dark day for our nation.
“This must be a wake up call to Australia and the government to move much faster to protect critical habitat from development and land-clearing and seriously address the impacts of climate change.”
Thousands of koalas are thought to have been among the native animals killed in the fires that swept Australia’s eastern and southern states in late 2019 and early 2020.
An inquiry last year in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, warned the koala could become extinct by 2050.