It’s alarming but true: The koala, one of the world’s most recognizable animals, is now an endangered species.
Officials say the marsupials, which are native only to Australia, have had a change in status due to droughts, floods, wildfires and habitat loss.
During a Friday segment on TODAY, NBC News correspondent Sara James reported that, according to the World Wildlife Fund in Australia, almost 60,000 koalas were either killed or negatively impacted by the severe wildfires of 2019 and 2020. At the time, many of the koalas had been reported to have suffered from injuries, smoke inhalation, dehydration, trauma, and increased predation by other animals also forced them to flee their habitats.
While Australian Army vets made sure the koalas that had survived received treatment, current factors at play still threaten the species’ population. This includes land clearing, which destroys the koala’s natural habitat and threatens its food supply.
Caitlin Ondracek, a koala and mammal keeper at Australia’s Moonlit Sanctuary, told TODAY that the koala’s change in status is part of a broader effort.
“Enlisting them as endangered actually brings them into the limelight and gets them that protection that they deserve,” she explained, adding that the world stands to lose quite a lot if the koala were to become entirely extinct.
Besides being worth billions of dollars to the Australian economy, koalas are also considered one of the country's national treasures.
“When you think Australia, you think koalas. And they’re an example of amazing adaptation,” Ondracek said. “They have found a niche in an environment where it’s really harsh and hard to survive. But they eat a food source that many other animals can’t eat. And they get water from those leaves. They’re up in a place that’s safe for them at the top of the trees. They have managed to adapt to a harsh country, a harsh environment.”
Ondracek says we can “absolutely” revive the endangered population. “But it requires acting now,” she noted. “We can’t wait too late. We can’t plant trees and have them grow up to be adult trees overnight. We actually have to plant trees now thinking of where they’re going to be in 10 years' time.”
So far, the Australian government has pledged $50 million to save the species. The country has also committed itself to restoring koala habitats, providing health protection and a national koala monitoring program. The WWF’s goal is to double the number of koalas across eastern Australia by 2050. Tree planting projects are already underway, and drones are being used to cover large areas.