As It Happens

Koala advocate defends declaring the animals 'functionally extinct'

Koalas in Australia are facing the brunt of vicious bushfires. But Deborah Tabart says that's only part of the problem. And, unlike other experts, Tabart says the animals are now "functionally extinct."

Scientists say Deborah Tabart's description of the koala decline from Australian bush fires is premature

A koala receives treatment after its rescue from an Australian bush fire. Deborah Tabart says the fires have now pushed koalas to a level where they are 'functionally extinct,' but some scientists have called that assessment an exaggeration. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)
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The bush fires that charred parts of Australia mean trouble for everyone — but could spell disaster for the koala.

And now, according to the Australian Koala Foundation, the marsupials may be threatened to a point of no return.

The non-profit organization says that a combination of droughts, deforestation and bushfires have left koalas "functionally extinct." But experts say that assessment overstates the threat to the species.

Noah Greenwald, the endangered species director at the Center for Biological Diversity, told the New York Times, "I think it's premature to call them functionally extinct ... that would almost suggest that we give up hope, and I don't think it's at that point yet."

Deborah Tabart, head of the Australian Koala Foundation, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why she stands by the assertion. Here is part of their conversation.

What impact have these bushfires had on koalas?

The worrying thing is that only 31 koalas have come into the hospital in Port Macquarie and they're estimating that 350 koalas have probably died in that part of the bush.

I got our scientists to evaluate how much bush has burned in New South Wales and it is 1.65 million hectares ... and not all of that will be koala habitat.

Over the coming days, we will try and assess how many animals we think have died in those fires.

On your website, you say the koalas are "functionally extinct." What do you mean by that?

I've been in trouble for that. There are some people who've come out against me on that.

The scary thing was all the river systems are dry. I think that everyone in Australia now has to focus on water. Koalas need trees that are on healthy river systems. And I don't believe that there are any populations that I've seen in my whole career that are safe.

Wildlife authorities fear hundreds of koalas have died in bush fires burning on Australia's east coast. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

But when you say "functionally extinct," what does that term mean? What are you saying?

Well, one of our scientists yesterday said [it's] when a species cannot fulfil its ecological niche, you know, like eating food, putting nutrients back into the soil.

But the nicest and easiest suggestion that I've been told is a koala living in the landscape today may have a joey [baby koala] and that baby might ... have a joey, but chances are the third one won't be born.

It doesn't matter what any scientist says to me. I've driven this landscape for 30 years, and I know the koala is in trouble.

The scientists who are pushing back on what you claim — [it's] not because they don't believe that the koalas are in trouble. But what they're saying is that when you use a term that suggests that they're doomed — that this is a population that is beyond the point of return — in fact, that's an exaggeration, and the koalas are actually not doomed.

What I want to say to those scientists of the world is go and see your local politician and tell them that they have to take the precautionary approach.

I am so sick of scientists arguing. I'm so sick of them saying, "I've got one more document that's going to save this planet."

I want a koala protection act. I want it now and I will not take the responsibility of implying that the koalas are doomed.

Every day of my life, I speak for those animals and the bush that I love, and it is time for our political leaders all around the world to take the heed that this planet is in serious trouble.

It's unfair to other scientists, I think, [to say] that they don't share that with you. They are very concerned. But I think what you're hearing ...

Then go pick on the politicians. Don't pick on me.

I believe the koala is functionally extinct. They can prove to me I'm wrong. If the controversy means that I get to talk to your listeners — great. Bring it on. Because I would rather those scientists actually gathering together and saying, "The koalas is in trouble. What can we do about it?" 

Come up with solutions. Don't pick on me about a term that you created in the first place.

Tabart says she stands by her claim that koalas are 'functionally extinct' and urges scientists to argue with their local politicians, rather than one another. (Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

But their argument is that if you exaggerate for an effect, the one you've described, if that's what it takes to have people wake up, then isn't there a threat of you losing credibility?

Look, honestly, and I appreciate you pushing the point, I haven't exaggerated. I believe the koala is functionally extinct.

I'm standing by this and I believe that if I was the prime minister I could put things in place, and the first thing would be legislation that stops our industries taking the water out [of] river systems, that developers have to have constraints on them.

I'm not exaggerating the situation at all. I am incredibly concerned. And after 31 years in my job, I have a duty of care to tell the world what I think.


Written John McGill. Interview produced by Cameron Perrier. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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