Eucalyptus itself is some of the most fire-adapted vegetation on Earth, able to sprout and grow anew in the immediate aftermath of fires. In normal fire conditions, the flames wouldn’t typically reach the top of the trees, leaving the koalas relatively unscathed. The spike we’re seeing in koala deaths is an indicator that something is wrong, says David Bowman, director of the Fire Centre Research Hub at the University of Tasmania.
The scale of the current fires—largely a result of climate change and the slow death of Aboriginal fire management methods—has no precedent, according to Bowman. “They are burning at a particularly high intensity,” he says.
Packed with oil, the trees are burning hot and fast, sometimes exploding and sending sparks metres in every direction.
It’s only the spring in Australia. “In terms of then bushfire crisis, this is the supporting act,” Bowman says. He worries that the situation will be far worse come in January and February, as temperatures continue to rise and drought is exacerbated.
How many koalas are left?
In 2016, experts estimated that there are about 329,000 koalas in Australia, which represents an average of a 24 percent decline in populations over the past three generations.
“It’s very difficult to estimate koala populations, even at the best of times,” Adams-Hosking says, because they have a very wide range across eastern Australia, and are human-shy and found very high up in trees. “Some populations are becoming locally extinct and others are doing just fine.”
Koalas are threatened by land development, food degradation (increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has diminished the nutritional quality of eucalyptus leaves), drought, dog attacks, and chlamydia. (Read more about the threats posed by cars and dogs.)
And, yes, fire too. In certain areas that have been hard hit by fire, it’s possible that local koala populations won’t recover, “but it’s too early to tell,” says Adams-Hosking. “We’d need monitoring over several years.”
Have the fires really decimated 80 percent of koala habitat?
No. Koalas’ range is large, extending along Australia’s entire Eastern coast. The recent bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland cover about a million hectares, Fisher says (and some estimates indicate as many as 2.5 million hectares), but the area of forest in eastern Australia where koalas can live is more than 100 million hectares.