Revealed: The biggest challenge to saving fire-ravaged koala population

As more than 80 fires burn across NSW, the federal environment minister has spoken to Yahoo News Australia about the challenges facing koala survival amid ongoing bushfires.

Struggling not to cough from the smoke blanketing Sydney, environment Minister Sussan Ley said on Tuesday we need to appreciate the effect the bushfires are having on this “iconic species”.

While her department has announced $3 million in funding for Queensland koala hospitals treating burnt and injured animals, Ms Ley knows the biggest challenge is still to come.

That will be releasing the koalas who manage to recover from their burns.

Close up of a koala being held up after surgery at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.
Kate the koala is treated at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

“We know about how fussy the koala is about where it lives,” Ms Ley told Yahoo News Australia.

“There’s another whole area of funding and work to restore habitat, and make sure that our koala populations thrive.

“Because you can’t release these koalas from these hospitals just anywhere, they have to go back to the area they’ve come from, so it adds another challenge.”

Koalas competing with people for habitats

With large areas of koala habitat already destroyed by urban development, the fires have worsened an already deteriorating situation.

“We’ve possibly lost about a third of their habitat and the koala population in this region,” she said, speaking of southeast Queensland and northern NSW.

“We need to respond to its needs, we can’t expect it to adapt too much to ours.

“And one of the issues is that we have been expecting the koala to adapt to our needs over time, because the koala likes to live where people live, or I should say people like to live where the koala likes to live.

“The reason that it’s a threatened species is because it exists where houses and urban development do.”

Sussan Ley posing next to a koala.
Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley meets a koala during National Threatened Species Day earlier this year. Source: AAP

‘Risk and intensity of the fires is worse’: Climate change

Ms Ley responded to growing calls for the establishment of a large koala national park, by highlighting the need for diversifying their range.

“The issue is not about a particular development and a particular location, the issue is about recovering the species across a wide range of southern Queensland and northern NSW,” she said.

“I’d like to see koalas in many national parks.

“You’ve got to be careful when you confine koalas to one area because you don’t always get the genetic diversity that results when you have a koala, or any species, in lots of different locations.

I’m not a koala expert, but I listen to them and I hear many of the messages around about this iconic species.”

Split screen. A koala close up in a basket. Its nose is red raw. A burnt out forest in Port Macquarie.
Large sections of koala habitat have been destroyed. Source: Michael Dahlstrom / Yahoo News Australia

Such intense fires across the country have not been experienced in living memory and Ms Ley noted the direct link between extreme weather and the fires.

“Climate change means the risk and intensity of the fires is worse and that statement is supported by climate scientists who I’ve had this conversation with,” she said.

“Australia is playing its part in global change, because when I say climate change... it’s global climate change and it’s a global challenge.”

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