2019 was the year of apocalyptic headlines, but there were perhaps few as chillingly dystopian as this: the news that koalas, through a range of factors including deforestation, chlamydia, and global warming, had become “functionally extinct”. So dramatic was this revelation that it went viral twice: first in May, after the Australian Koala Foundation declared that “there are no more than 80,000 koalas in Australia”, and then again last week, after catastrophic bushfires wiped out huge swathes of crucial koala habitat on the country’s east coast.
That term—functionally extinct—was bandied about by a vast number of media outlets around the world, many of them deploying it with a dash of uncertain ambiguity. It wasn’t entirely clear what it meant, exactly, for a species to be “functionally extinct”. But it sounded bad. And that might actually be the most worrying part of this whole thing.
In the interest of clarifying what exactly is going on with the koala population at large, VICE got in touch with Mathew Crowther, an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences. Matthew assured us that no, koalas are not in fact extinct—not even functionally—and suggested the whole thing might simply be the result of a lobbying campaign that spun out of hand. He also explained the problem with the term “functionally extinct”, and the broader dangers of using alarmist language which misleads people into thinking it’s too late to act.
VICE: Is it true that koalas are functionally extinct? And what does it actually mean to say that about a species?
Matthew: Okay, so there's a couple of things about the term "functionally extinct." Firstly, it's quite a vague term because it can mean a number of different things. It can mean that a species is no longer in numbers enough to have an impact on the ecosystem, or contribute to the ecosystem. It can also mean that the numbers of the species is so low that they can't recover, so they're basically functionally extinct. Or it can mean that they've basically got no genetic variation left so they can't survive in the long term.
The problem is, again, it's a vague term—any term that's got multiple definitions is vague by nature—and it's also the case that none of the definitions actually fit the koala. So it's not a very helpful term at all. They would have to fit at least one of the definitions and they don't. Unfortunately there's only one person who's actually said this term and it's basically been magnified, and that's the head of the Australian Koala Foundation [Deborah Tabart] but no one else is saying it. Again, a lot of people don't like the term "functionally extinct" because it hasn't got a clear definition, but also any definition that it does have doesn't seem to fit koalas very well at all.
What led to the head of the koala foundation making this declaration?
I don't know her personal motivation, although I can guess it. She's used an alarmist term. If you say something like "oh it's functionally extinct", people start panicking because people don't want to hear the words "extinct" and "koalas" linked. So I suppose she was trying to get the world's attention—which she did—on the plight of koalas. Certainly the latest bushfires have not been very good for the koalas in the locations that have burned. But it could also backfire: people might think "oh they're functionally extinct? Well, that's sad, but we can't do anything so we'll just leave it alone." So it's not actually a very useful concept at all.
The problem is that this is one individual from an organisation called the Australian Koala Foundation, which is a lobbyist organisation, not an expert organisation. In times past they employed koala researchers, but they seem to have moved more and more into the lobbyist space. So she was probably playing the game and it did get a lot of coverage for koalas internationally by saying those comments. Maybe that was her motivation, or maybe she believes it. But if she wanted to achieve attention for koala's then she certainly achieved that.
What are the potentially harmful or dangerous implications of jumping to the term "functionally extinct"?
Well when you say something like "functionally extinct" you're basically saying extinct. It's like making any grand statement—it's almost like saying "it's too late now, we can't do anything." Of course people might get alarmed. And koalas are declining in numbers in a lot of populations and there are significant threats to koalas, but these can still be dealt with; we can still address these. The problem is if you say "it's all gone, it's functionally extinct now" it's basically saying it's inevitable, like "oh well, we can't do anything about it. It's sad, but we can't do anything." And it can be quite harmful because it gives people a sense of helplessness.
Now, I don't know if it had that impact. Maybe there have been some positives. One positive that it might have led to is that all the scientists and everyone else have said "no no no, that's a silly word to use" but people are talking about it and it's getting out there and people are actually really, really concerned about koalas. There's been a lot of money donated to help koalas, especially after these bushfires. So it probably isn't as harmful as it could have been. It's misguided, it's alarmist, but if it makes people talk and gets attention out there then it may help in that way.
Why is it so important for people to understand that koalas aren't functionally extinct?
Because it's incorrect. When you're working on koalas and you're working on conservation, you want the truth out there, so that you can lead people to what they can do instead of thinking it's all over.
What can people do? What needs to happen for koalas to be better protected in the future?
Well, there's a number of things that need to be done. We have to look at the effects on koalas in those particular areas. Fires are obviously one threat, but also roads, dog attacks, disease, and general loss and fragmentation of their habitat. These different threats interact, and some threats are more important in some parts of the koala's range. So we need to identify the threats, we need to research and get good data and then we can address them. They can be addressed in a number of ways, like short-term effects—fire-affected koalas can be found and treated at a koala hospital—as well as more long-term effects, like making sure that there's habitat for the koalas to be in, especially near the fires so that when the green growth comes back into those burned areas koalas can move back in. Then there's climate change, aspects of which we've got to really deal with on a global scale.
How far are koalas from becoming "functionally extinct" in some way?
As a species as a whole they're probably not close. Certainly populations in Victoria and South Australia are probably overabundant in certain areas. In New South Wales and Queensland things are a bit different, but I don't actually think we're going to lose koalas as a whole. We shouldn't ever be complacent though, because things can change very dramatically. We've seen species that have been very abundant basically dwindle to the brink of extinction in a very short period of time. We just have to be vigilant.