Politics, Science/Environment

71 percent loss of Koalas in Northern NSW – WWF report

A report released this week shows a 71 per cent decline in koala populations across six locations in northern NSW, burned in last season’s bushfires.

By Kirstie Wellauer and Kerrin Thomas

The decline is being described as “devastating”. (Supplied: Pat Durman/NSW National Parks)

Key points:

  • The study compares koala populations before and after the bushfires over Black Summer
  • At one site near Taree no koalas were found and at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline
  • The study found the severity of fires had an impact on survival rates

The study was commissioned by the WWF (previously known as World Wildlife Fund) for Nature Australia and chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said the findings are devastating.

“Seventy-one per cent is a massive figure; three-quarters of the population in these areas have been hit by the fires and lost,” he said.

“Seventy-one per cent is an average so in some places we lost nearly all the koalas, which of course is devastating.”

Specialist koala ecologist Stephen Phillips undertook the study, which he said was the first study to quantify the impact of the bushfires on koala populations.

A man in a high-vis shirt looks up a tree while measuring it's burnt trunk with a measuring tape.
NSW ecologist Stephen Phillips in the Lake Innes State Conservation Area.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

It compares population data collected before the bushfires to data collected following the fires.

“We’ve now got the tools [so] we can find these populations and we really have to wrap them in cotton wool,” he said.

“If we don’t and we just proceed with our normal activities, whether it’s logging or development in peri-urban areas, and we’re having direct impacts on the relic koala populations, then we could simply be exacerbating the problems for these remaining populations.”

Survival impacted by severity of fires

In total, 123 sites across six locations from Ballina in the north to Forster in the south were examined as part of the study.

A map of northern NSW, with six sites pointed out.
The 123 sites surveyed stretch from Forster to Ballina.(Supplied: WWF Australia)

The team looked for unburnt droppings below koala food trees to determine if koalas had survived the fires.

Some koala populations fared better than others.

Koala occupancy survey:

  • Wardell: 70 per cent decline
  • Busby’s Flat at Royal Camp State Forest: 72 per cent decline
  • Busby’s Flat at Braemar State Forest: 47 per cent decline
  • Lake Innes State Conservation Area: 34 per cent decline
  • Hillville Road at Kiwarrak: 100 per cent decline
  • Hillville Road at Khappinghat Nature Reserve: 87 per cent decline

At Kiwarrak, south of Taree, no koalas were found and nearby at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline in occupancy.

At Lake Innes State Conservation Area near Port Macquarie the decline was 34 per cent.

Dr Phillips said the study also found the severity of the fires had an impact on survival rates.

“Koala survival was five times more likely in areas that only were partially burned,” he said.

“It meant that in areas that had perhaps a light fire, or the fire had just gone through the understory and didn’t really scorch the canopy, that animals were surviving and that’s the key to recovery.”

Dr Stephen Phillips holds out a piece of burnt koala scat (faecal pellet)
A burnt koala dropping, known as scat.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

An ‘international’ tragedy

Dr Phillips says koalas now need to be reclassified as an endangered species to ensure the species’ survival.

“Given the events of last spring and summer, and given the events leading up to that, the drought, we’re in no doubt now that koalas in NSW are an endangered species,” he said.

“And they really need to be listed as that.

“Not that it will necessarily make any difference but what it goes in to how much of the population we’ve lost in the last decade or so.Rescued koalas released after summer bushfire tragedyKoalas found on the verge of starvation are now thriving and ready to be released at the site of one of the summer bushfires’ saddest tragedies.Read more

“If we don’t take action we will lose this animal and I think that’s going to be a national and international tragedy.

Mr O’Gorman also raised concerns legislation passed in the Lower House of Parliament a few days ago would “fast-track extinction”.

“The chance to put strong environmental laws when Parliament resumes in October is going to be a critical part to saving these koala populations and others as well,” he said.

The report has been submitted for peer review.

First published at The ABC Mid-North Coast NSW on Monday 7 September 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-06/wwf-koala-loss-report-finds-71pc-decline-after-fires


  1. After the recent bushfires and the international attention given to the plight of koalas, I am surprised again by the National party response to the Koala Planning Laws proposed by Aunty Glady.

    John Barilaro is on the war footing again along with Gourmesh Singh and even the retired Andrew Fraser. Why is the Nat Party so adversarial about any proposal for environmental issues? As usual the city versus country debate rears its head, even though many rural residents are not farmers.

    Could we please have a rational debate and consensus on one of our endangered national treasures. Instead we receive the usual knee jerk reaction; “they are going to lock up our land”. Obviously there is worldwide interest in our koalas, after Go Fund raised nearly $2 million for koala help. If wildlife corridors are established on private land with agreement could we not compensate landowners with funding maybe similar to wind turbines etc?

    The habitat needs to be encouraged and fostered /monitored, perhaps financial incentive is a way to move forward with this debate?

  2. Subject: BLOODYMINDEDNESS. This was written nearly two years ago !!

    The National Party slogan from 1920s till 1970s was “countrymindedness”. It carried them for years when things were good. But I believe they crippled debate in Australia on so many issues.

    I have had first hand experience  with the National Party. I was conned  into a fund raising night for the local National Party.It gave me a fascinating insight into the economic and social gatekeepers of many parts of regional Australia. The night was dominated mostly by older philistine males of anglo/scottish background.

    They were stubborn and quintessential  know alls and loved gossip.They learnt long ago to stack any community groups to influence government grants,landcare funding and changes to environmental laws. They hijacked debate in the community for their pecuniary interest and maintaining status quo.One naive council officer worked on a proposal for environmental corridors through rural lands.

    The proposal was doomed from the beginning,I tried to warn him.The gatekeepers said land would be acquired without permission. A community meeting was held to discuss the proposal.The council officer didnt stand a chance, he was almost lynched by an angry mob,inflamed by misinformation from the National party gatekeepers. Nearly one million dollars was spent on this doomed proposal, only to be shelved.The council officers position was soon made redundant They have become the party of “bloodymindedness”.

    They have held the country to ransom with less than 5% of the primary vote and 10 -12 seats in government.Yet with a minority vote they have stymied debate on climate change, sustainability,land clearing,revegetation and even electric vehicles. Who can forget their campaign against electric cars and farmers would lose their utes. They have become scaremongers of our national psyche, preaching to the lowest common denominator.

    Their mantra against bureaucrats destroying the good simple farmer has some merit.But becomes laughable when farmers really needed  help with drought/fires and related grants/bureaucracy.The National Party does have a drought minister, Barnaby Joyce who is almost a solo comedy act .He submits his drought reports to the PM by text .You can imagine”Its all good”. So many missed opportunities to stand up for farmers; the Murray/Darling inquiry,free trade agreement, biosecurity and even live exports.So what happened, they did have good leaders such as Tim Fischer who understood consensus and his legacy of gun control with Howard was a miracle it ever happened.

    John Anderson understood consensus as well.The National Party of today has become a reactionary party lacking any innovation,they have become a parody of themselves. They are a complete disappointment to their followers,when they should be leading.

    The Liberals treat them like errant schoolboys whos parents have paid expensive school fees. They cannot be admonished too much.The National Party have let their voters down with the status quo mantra. Everything will be okay with climate change,free trade agreements and globalisation.Its a new world out there,and its tough.Farmers are going to need all the help they can get.

    I cannot see the National Party being in the equation unless they address the issues they deny;  climate change ,sustainable farming and globalisation

  3. The real koala story here is a positive one. Our part of the world on the whole was not dealt such a devastating blow although localised suffering was obviously horrific and may never recover.

    In terms of the National Party and their policy agenda I really think there needs to be some honesty. The SEPP changes which they are now complaining of were debated, passed and legislated for back in March. Why now are the supposed terrible impacts on regional farmers just being raised? Are they really that slow?

    The fuss about the revised tree list is a ‘furphy’. There are different lists for each region as you would expect. While the statewide Koala tree species checklist has risen from 12 to 65 species what do the FACTS reveal?

    In Clarence Valley the List is 21 species (of 65 spp) of which 6 are High Use spp, 0 are Significant Use spp, 10 are Irregular Use spp & 5 are Low Use spp.

    In Coffs Harbour 22 species (of 65 spp) of which 4 are High Use spp, 7 are Significant Use spp, 4 are Irregular Use spp & 7 are Low Use spp.
    In Port Macquarie 24 species (of 65 spp) of which 4 are High Use spp, 5 are Significant Use spp, 14 are Regular Use spp & 1 is Low Use spp.

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