Wildlife experts have been urged to fast-track their decision on whether koalas are now endangered, amid the unprecedented bushfire crisis.
A panel will also be established to create a recovery plan for the marsupial which was already considered vulnerable before bushfires destroyed key habitats in NSW, Queensland and South Australia.
"Everything that can be done to rescue and recover koala habitat will be done," Environment Minister Sussan Ley said at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on Monday.
"Including innovative approaches that look at whether you can actually put a koala in an area that it hasn't come from."
It comes as a wildlife group calls on koalas to be introduced to New Zealand eucalyptus plantations to ensure they don’t become functionally extinct.
In a statement the group, Koala Relocation Society, said koalas could: “thrive in New Zealand, as many other Australasian species do.”
A petition advocating for the relocation of some of Australia’s koala population had been signed by nearly 7,000 people on Monday afternoon.
In November, the Australian Koala Foundation proclaimed koalas were “functionally extinct” in parts of Australia but researchers were quick to pour cold water on that claim. However largely thanks to habitat loss, dwindling koala populations have been facing real danger and after the horror bushfire crisis, the marsupial could be officially classified as endangered.
Government puts up $50 million for wildlife recovery
More than one billion animals are thought to have perished in the fires, according to researchers at Sydney University, prompting the federal government to give wildlife and environmental groups an initial cash injection of $50 million.
In announcing the funding, Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the country’s koala population had taken an “extraordinary hit” in the ongoing bushfires and could be listed as “endangered”.
The money will be evenly split with $25 million to an emergency intervention fund and $25 million for frontline environmental groups.
Australia's threatened species commissioner Sally Box will put together the recovery panel which will meet on Wednesday.
The panel will include university experts as well as Zoos Victoria, CSIRO and state and territory representatives.
Dr Box said the panel would consider the impact the fires have had on Australia's threatened animals, map affected areas and create a long-term plan to restore habitat.
Unburned areas will also be used to help protect animals, including by ensuring feral predators are controlled around the perimeter of properties.
Lack of protection causing ‘death by a thousand cuts’
Environmental groups have welcomed the initial money, but say much more will be needed as the magnitude of the devastation becomes clear.
Australian Conservation Foundation's James Trezise says species will need to be safeguarded for the future.
"That means protecting critical habitats, long term funding for recovery actions and stronger national environmental laws," he said.
The Wilderness Society says Australia's approach to looking after vulnerable species needs a complete overhaul to ensure they don't become extinct.
"For over 20 years, Australia's wildlife and iconic natural places have suffered a death by a thousand cuts under Australia's failed nature protection system, and these fires may have pushed many species over the brink," the society's Suzanne Milthorpe said.
Have been on Kangaroo Island for two days but it feels like a month. Nothing could have prepared me for this. We're non-stop in the field searching for wildlife survivors in apocalyptic landscapes. Air is thick with ash and death, but I wouldn't be anywhere else #AustralianFires pic.twitter.com/hHyvyVwJ3x— Evan Quartermain (@EvanQuartermain) January 12, 2020
The Greens say the $50 million is "petty cash" given the environmental catastrophe.
"This can't just be a fluffy PR exercise from the environment minister because the whole world is talking about Australia's koalas being burnt and killed," Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said in a statement.
"Our beautiful environment and wildlife is what makes Australia the place people want to come and visit, it deserves more than this token announcement."
The public response to the plight of animals has been strong, with the WIRES wildlife rescue organisation receiving close to $14 million in online donations.
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