The term 'functionally extinct' is used when the number of animals becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable.
Australia is currently going through bushfires and drought. Owing to these, the Koala population has diminished with their habitat, leaving them “functionally extinct," according to Forbes. Deborah Tabart, chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, estimates that over 1,000 koalas have been killed from the fires and that 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed. The recent bushfires and the prolonged drought and deforestation is, according to experts, the reason for the state of the species. The term "functionally extinct" is used when the number of animals becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable.
Even though there are slim chances of reproduction between these koalas, the fact that they are limited in number makes their long-term viability unlikely and highly susceptible to disease. Eucalyptus trees, the main source of nutrition to koalas have been destroyed due to deforestation and bushfires. An adult koala will eat up to 2 pounds of eucalyptus leaves per day as its main staple of nutrients. Although it is possible to restore these trees, it will take months and the koalas will be left to starve in the meanwhile.
Deborah Tabart also expressed her worry about the dying species and said in a statement, "I know the Australian public are concerned for the safety of koalas and are tired of seeing dead koalas on our roads." Tabart further gives us an insight into the Koala Protection Act of 2016. "I am calling on the new prime minister after the May election to enact the Koala Protection Act (KPA) which has been written and ready to go since 2016," she said.
Many are now pressing the Australian government to enact the Koala Protection Act. It was written in 2016 but never passed into law and molded after the Bald Eagle Protection Act in the U.S. The Koala Protection Act would work to protect habitats and trees vital to koalas as well as protect koalas from hunting. Recently, a woman rescuing a koala with the shirt of her own back went viral, and that's increased the donation to support hospitalization and help for burned koalas.
The Red List of Threatened Species had already classified the koala as vulnerable, and now the species are further threatened due to the bushfires that have already burned more than 2.5 million acres of Australia’s East Coast. As of now, it has been estimated that nearly 350 koalas have died in the bushfires that have blanketed a vital koala habitat in New South Wales. So far, at least 31 koalas have been brought to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital to be treated for burns and dehydration.
Several volunteers are also helping by taking in koalas found burnt and dehydrated after the fires. Koalas, in particular, are more vulnerable to fires because they tend to climb to the tops of trees, which is straight into the heat. Climate change which has led to warmer weather, makes conditions worse for koalas, as deforestation has narrowed habitable areas, said James Tremain of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales. “Devastating bushfires are going to knock out some of these key population centers, but so will increasing temperatures,” he said, by affecting the nutrition value of the leaves that are the animals’ sole food source.