The threatened koala has already lost more habitat due to bushfires in Australia. To feed the colonies of sick and weak animals, scientists bred three “superhero” koalas.
They’re small, cute, hugely popular, and they’re something of a highlight in Australia – and endangered. The number of koalas has decreased dramatically over the past few decades. In February, the states of New South Wales, Queensland and the Australian Capital Territory officially classified marsupials as “endangered”. A study by the Koala Australia Foundation assumes a maximum of 58,000 live specimens across the country. In just three decades, the population has fallen by 30 percent.
The fires have killed thousands of koalas
Koalas are victims of dog attacks or traffic accidents. In addition, chlamydia infection debilitates animals. But what affects them most is the loss of their habitat. During the devastating bushfires between June 2019 and February 2020, more than 15,000 individual fires burned millions of hectares of forest. A natural disaster went down in Australian history as the “Black Summer”.
The WWF speaks of “one of the greatest catastrophes in the modern history of the animal and plant world”. According to a study by the environmental organization, about three trillion animals died in the fires, including 60 thousand koalas. Due to global warming and less rainfall, the frequency and intensity of wildfires has steadily increased. By 2050, experts predict another 25 percent increase in severe fire events.
“We’ve seen a sharp decline in koala numbers due to drought, heat waves and water shortages,” said Deborah Tabart, director of the Australia Koala Foundation. “I’ve seen some landscapes that look like the moon – with dead and dying trees.” “Black Summer” in “The World”. The natural disaster meant a huge loss for the previously threatened koala.
Koalas lose their habitat
“People were in trouble, especially in New South Wales, long before the bushfires of the black summer 2019/2020,” Die Welt newspaper quoted Alison Kelly, Vice President of Friends of the Koala Animal Welfare Organization, as saying. Because the habitat of the animals is already becoming less and less. Vast areas of forest have been cleared over the years, particularly in Queensland and New South Wales, to make way for agriculture, infrastructure and urban development.
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For marsupials, these developments presented a new set of threats to forests: dogs, cars, pesticides, and severe habitat fragmentation into isolated areas. This in turn leads to the fact that very limited gene flow can occur in individual koala populations during breeding. Stephen Johnston, a koala expert at the University of Queensland, explains that inbreeding is on the rise. It is also important to have as diverse a set of genes as possible so that animals can adapt to changing environmental conditions. Reduced gene flow makes populations less resilient – another threat to koalas, which are already endangered.
Breeding koalas with different genes should help
This is where the University of Queensland’s Living Koala Genome Bank project comes in. In cooperation with the zoo “Dreamworld”, the researchers raised koalas “of high genetic value,” as the university stated on its website. The three animals – ‘Jagger’, ‘Boy’ and ‘Freddie’ – could upend the flow of endangered koala colonies along the East Coast and play a vital role in saving their species. “When the population becomes very small, some kind of management is needed,” Johnston explains in a video from the university. To do this, the expert began a controlled breeding program: the scientists crossed two wild koalas from different groups, the genes of which had been previously analyzed, in the zoo.
After some time, the offspring will be released back into the wild and reproduce as much as possible in order to introduce their genes into the local population and thus increase genetic variation in individual koala populations. Jagger recently abandoned Johnston and his team at a colony at Elanora Conservation Park. As Johnston reports, the bred animal “is fully vaccinated against chlamydia, is disease-free and – thanks to its diverse genes – will help protect koalas in this group from the dangers of inbreeding”. “Bowie” and “Freddie” are also slated to be released into the wild soon.
The expert sees the project as the first step in making the animals more resistant to disease and climate change. A model for achieving long-term protection for koalas in the wild. At the same time, Johnston also emphasizes that breeding animals are not the solution to the future of the species, but rather a supportive measure.
Johnston’s classmate, Shawn Fitzgibbon, takes a different approach. With a team of wildlife researchers, a scientist from the University of Queensland has been able to rehabilitate a dwindling koala population on Brisbane’s south side. Experts examined each animal individually in detail. The wounded or sick were arrested and treated immediately. According to the Fitzgibbon Report, these “focused and sustained efforts” have “changed the trajectory of population decline.”
Habitat protection the most important measure
At the start of the project, 60 percent of the marsupials became ill and the population collapsed. Meanwhile, the animals reproduce again and are largely free of infection. “The general health of this population has significantly improved,” says the researcher. Working on site was the key to success. Wildlife veterinarian Dr. Amber Gillette.
However, both projects concluded that while such steps are effective ways to protect koalas, ultimately the root cause of the problem – habitat loss – must be addressed. Koala expert Johnston says that “preventing the spread of disease and protecting, buying or rehabilitating habitats” must come first. This is the only way to get a chance for the country’s animal symbol to recover in the long run.
Sources: Australian Koala Foundation, “The World”, University of Queensland (I), University of Queensland (II), WWF (I), WWF (II)