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Koala population will be able to survive Australia’s catastrophic bushfires, says CQUni expert

Published:07 January 2020

CQUniversity's koala expert Dr Alistair Melzer says the koala can survive the catastrophic bushfires around Australia.

CQUni Koala expert Dr Alistair Melzer says as catastrophic as the bushfires around Australia are, the koala is not facing extinction.

Asked whether the nation’s koala populations will recover from the bushfires raging in New South Wales and Victoria, Dr Melzer said that in any one region, survival was dependent upon the local extent and severity of the fires and on the size and condition of the unburned fire refuges.

“It depends on the situation,” he said. “Where there has been catastrophic crown fires the local populations will have been lost. Koalas instinctively climb to the top of trees, so they will have been lost in places where those types of fire have happened. Not just koalas, but many other animals.”

“Yes, the fires have been devastating but it doesn’t mean the koala is functionally extinct. There will be population impacts on local and regional areas in Victoria and South-Eastern New South Wales, but the species will be able to survive.”

Dr Melzer said the bushfires were of a different intensity in parts of Northern New South Wales and Queensland however, and some habitats are already recovering, giving surviving koalas a chance to expand from those “fire refuges”.

We have received accounts of healthy koalas surviving the fires in the Carnarvon Ranges in Central Queensland and in some northern New South Wales forests.

“Those surviving koalas will have to adapt in these areas - will they find enough food resources?” he said.

“Koalas are dependent on eucalypt for both food and water. With the prolonged drought and heat and now these bushfires the quality of that foliage will go down, which may limit the availability of water, and the nutrient content of the foliage. This may also reduce their reproductive capacity.

“Koalas will be able to recover, but that’s dependent on this climate change-driven drought, aquifers and tree recovery.

“The impacts on koalas and their habitat is more severe in eastern New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, but much less so in Queensland which has a different landscape. Much of the koala habitat in Queensland has a simpler, more open structure and is less likely to experience crown fires.

“If this (the extreme drought, heatwave and extensive bushfires) is going to become the norm we will have to be prepared for a change in distribution of the koala and of the koala habitat in coming decades.”

He said the unreliability of population estimates made it difficult to calculate the actual numbers of koalas lost to the bushfires, but he said these losses compound those caused by the ongoing drought.

“It’s more important to look at the impact on the extent of the habitat, rather than koala numbers,” he said.

“Koalas mostly live in low-density areas and their population is extensively connected so their recovery will depend on how the habitat recovers.

“We need to remember that as catastrophic as these fires are they are a product of the extensive drought in Australia and it was already having an impact and will likely continue to have an impact for at least the rest of this year.”

Dr Alistair Melzer (PhD Ecology UQ) has been working in regional Queensland since 1989 when he commenced studies into koala ecology around Springsure in Central Queensland. Dr Melzer has worked with Queensland’s industry, government and community since 1995 to resolve environmental problems associated with project development and subsequent management. Alistair also pursues independent, applied research projects in partnership with state agencies, universities and the community. Currently, these include:

Koala conservation biology;

Restoration of koala habitat under climate change;

Management of environmental weeds and the recovery of fire sensitive ecosystems; and

Ecosystem change under pressure from climate change on Australia’s continental islands.

Dr Melzer has provided impartial, expert advice to community, industry, state (New South Wales, South Australia and Queensland) and federal agencies and local governments on a variety of environmental issues associated with conservation biology, biodiversity management, and environmental risks. He has been formally and informally involved in the recovery planning processes for the bridled nailtail wallaby, northern hairy-nosed wombat, and the yellow chat, as well as conservation planning for the koala and some ecosystems. Dr Melzer was a member of the Queensland Government’s expert panel to provide advice on ways to better protect koalas. He also provides advice to the New South Wales Natural Resource Commission on koala research strategy.