AAP FactCheck

Restoring confidence in public statements by independently testing and verifying the facts

Could koalas become extinct by 2050 or are koala populations rising?

By Louise Evans, James Lane & Tiffanie Turnbull

The Statement

“If we don’t do something by 2050 koalas are going to be extinct."

Tony Judge, NSW Labor candidate for Coffs Harbour. March 19, 2019.

"I think the scientific evidence shows otherwise, that the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past."

Gurmesh Singh, NSW Nationals candidate for Coffs Harbour. March 19, 2019.

The Analysis

Coffs Harbour candidates Tony Judge (Labor) and Gurmesh Singh (Nationals) are divided over NSW koala populations and the need for a Great Koala National Park in their electorate. [1]

AAP FactCheck examined Mr Judge’s claim that “if we don’t do something by 2050 koalas are going to be extinct”.

AAP FactCheck also examined Mr Singh’s opposing claim that “scientific evidence” shows the number of koalas “are far higher than they have been in the past”.

Concerned by the impact of logging and the forestry industry, regional environment groups and the NSW National Parks Association (NPA) engaged ecologist David Scott to map and report on koala populations along NSW’s mid north coast.

Scott’s 2013 report led to a proposal titled “A blueprint for a comprehensive reserve system for koalas on the North Coast of NSW”. It was adopted in December 2014 by then NSW Labor leader Luke Foley who committed $150 million for a Great Koala National Park (GKNP) ahead of the 2015 NSW election. This GKNP proposal has since been adopted by the NSW Greens Party. [2]

The GKNP would consist of 315,000 hectares in the Coffs Harbour hinterland and would be Australia’s first large national park dedicated to protecting koalas. [3]

The park would protect an estimated 4550 koalas or between 20-30 per cent of all koalas in NSW.

The GKNP became a 2019 NSW election issue because of the impact it would have on the Coffs Harbour electorate. Candidates are divided on koala populations, the negative impacts a GKNP could have on the forestry industry and any positive impacts from tourism. [1]

Tony Judge’s 2050 koala extinction claim is based on a 2018 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservation Council (NCC) which estimated koalas were on track to face extinction in NSW by 2050. The 2050 estimate was reached using advice from the federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) in 2012, which listed koalas in NSW, Queensland and ACT as “vulnerable to extinction” based on two population estimates.

“The TSSC estimated a 33 per cent koala population decline from 31,400 to 21,000 across the two decades from 1990-2010. The worst-case extinction year would be 2050 based on linear extrapolation from these two points,” the WWF/NCC report said. [4]

NCC CEO Kate Smolski said “koala numbers across the state, including on the north coast, have plummeted up to 50 per cent since 1990”. "There are now possibly as few as 15,000 left in the wild. On current trends and without urgent action koalas are on track to become extinct by mid-century.” [5]

Richard Kingsford, a professor of environmental science at the University of NSW, said while the WWF/NCC methodology was sound, the report’s 2050 prediction was “blunt”. “It's clearly identified that clearing has gone on - that seems incontrovertible - I think the more difficult leap is what does that mean in terms of potential extinction of species.” [6]

A spokesman for NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton discounted the WWF/NCC report. “The NSW government’s koala strategy - the biggest commitment by any state government to secure koalas in the wild - will provide more natural habitat for koalas, tackle diseases, improve research and fix roadkill hotspots. The NSW government has committed $45 million for this strategy. The WWF and NCC are simply playing politics and scaremongering.” [7]

Based on the evidence AAP FactCheck found Mr Judge’s claim to be mostly true, as Prof Kingsford and Ms Upton discounted some or all of the WCC/NCC report on which Mr Judge based his claim.

There was little evidence to support Mr Singh’s claim “the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past”.

It’s “practically impossible” to get an accurate count of koalas, according to the Australia Koala Foundation. Instead modelling is used to estimate koala numbers by examining koala habitats and the spread and density of koalas across habitats. [8]

There is however consensus that koala numbers are declining.

According to a senate report the estimated koala population before European settlement was as high as 10 million. [9]

The Journal of Conservation Biogeography estimated an average decline of 24 per cent over the past three generations. [10]

The senate report concluded koalas had “undergone marked decline over three generations”. [9]

The Australian Government Department of Environment's Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) told a 2011 senate inquiry there were approximately 300,000 koalas in 2010, down from 430,000 in 1990. [9]

In South Australia and Victoria koala populations are “flourishing” and are not listed as vulnerable or threatened, although numbers are still declining according to the Journal of Conservation Biogeography. The decline in Queensland, NSW and the ACT is considered severe. [9 pages 17 & 23] [10]

Ecological historian and forester Vic Jurskis told ABC radio in 2017 that koalas existed in sparse numbers prior to European settlement and that the koala decline was not a crisis as populations had fallen from unsustainably high levels resulting from forest mismanagement.

“A stable (koala) population is the right size. If koalas are increasing there’s something wrong and inevitably they’re going to decline,” Mr Jurskis said. [11]

There are studies that have included references to possible increases in koala numbers in some areas in NSW.

A 2018 report commissioned by the NSW Department of Primary Industries in 2018 found there were up to 10 times the number of koalas previously thought to be in NSW’s north-east forests. [12]

A 2015 paper gave the outlook for koals in NSW, Queensland and the ACT as "continuing overall decline" but cited earlier research that koalas around the New England Tableland hinterland were "relatively stable with some indications of a local increase". [13]

In another 2015 paper, researchers stated they believed there had been an increase in koala numbers around Campbelltown, south-west of Sydney. [14]

And a 2016 paper made a tentative finding that koalas around the Bermagui/Mumbulla area in south-eastern NSW may be increasing. [15]

AAP FactCheck concludes Mr Singh’s claim “the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past” is mostly false as there are papers which have found possible increases in koala numbers in some areas, however there is no evidence of an increase in the NSW koala population.

The Verdict

  • Mostly True - Mr Judge’s claim is mostly true – mostly accurate, but there is a minor error or problem.
  • Mostly False - Mr Singh’s claim is mostly false - mostly false with one minor element of truth.

The References

1: ‘Candidates respond to Great Koala National Park plans’. The Coffs Harbour Advocate. March 19, 2019: https://www.coffscoastadvocate.com.au/news/video-candidates-respond-to-great-koala-national-p/3675527/

2: ‘The Great Koala National Park proposal: 26 years in the making - Part 1’. Coffs Coast Outlook. June 5, 2018: https://coffscoastoutlook.com.au/the-great-koala-national-park-proposal-26-years-in-the-making-part-1/

3: ‘The Great Koala National Park plan’. National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) conservation organisation: https://npansw.org/npa/campaigns/great-koala-national-park/the-great-koala-national-park-plan/

4: WWF Australia. September, 2018: https://www.wwf.org.au/ArticleDocuments/351/pub-Koala-extinction-risk-NSW-28sept18.pdf.aspx

5: ‘Great Koala National Park will 'destroy' the North Coast’. By Sam Flanagan. Coffs Coast Advocate. March 16, 2019: https://www.coffscoastadvocate.com.au/news/great-koala-national-park-will-destroy-the-north-c/3673555/

6: ‘Koalas face extinction in New South Wales by 2050 due to land clearing, scientist warns’. By Patrick Wood. ABC. September 10, 2018: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-07/koalas-face-extinction-in-nsw-due-to-land-clearing/10212236

7: ‘Government ridicules WWF claim koalas extinct by 2050’. By John Ellicott. The Land. September 7, 2018: https://www.theland.com.au/story/5632638/wwf-report-says-native-veg-laws-will-kill-off-koalas/

8: ‘How AKF and Government got their Numbers’. Australian Koala Foundation: https://www.savethekoala.com/our-work/how-akf-and-government-got-their-numbers

9: ‘Environment and Communications References Committee senate inquiry: The koala—saving our national icon’. 2011: https://www.savethekoala.com/sites/savethekoala.com/files/uploads/old/pdfworddocs/conserve/senatereport.pdf

10: ‘Use of expert knowledge to elicit population trends for the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)’, by C. Adams-Hosking et al. Diversity and Distributions - A Journal of Conservation Biogeography. 2016. Supplied to AAP FactCheck

11: ‘Ecological historian argues koala population decline is not a crisis’. ABC Radio. RN Breakfast. November 27, 2017: https://abcmedia.akamaized.net/rn/podcast/2017/11/bst_20171127_0753.mp3

12: ‘Acoustics provide new insights on koalas in hinterland forests’. NSW Department of Primary Industries. July 30, 2018: https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/about-us/media-centre/releases/2018/acoustics-provide-new-insights-on-koalas-in-hinterland-forests

13: 'Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges'. Clive McAlpine et al. 2015: http://koalagroup.asn.au/wp2016/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/McAlpine-et-al.-2015-Conserving-koalas-A-review-of-the-contrasting-trends-outlooks-and-policy-challenges-Biologic.pdf

14: 'A dangerous idea: that Koala densities can be low without the populations being in danger'. Robert Close, Steven Ward, David Phalen. 2015: https://publications.rzsnsw.org.au/doi/abs/10.7882/AZ.2015.001

15: '2012-14 Koala survey report in coastal forests of south-eastern NSW - Bermagui/Mumbulla area'. Office of Environment and Heritage, NSW Government. 2016: https://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/resources/threatenedspecies/koala-survey-bermagui-mumbulla-160233.pdf

Revision History

  • First published March 19, 2019 18:17 AEDT
  • Updated November 22, 2019 17:35 AEDT - Paragraph 23 updated with additional detail of Mr Vic Jurskis interview on ABC Radio.

Paragraph 25 edited to remove previous finding that "There was only one study ... which found any evidence of any increase". Paragraphs 27, 28 and 29 added to include additional references to papers which referred to possible increases in koala numbers in some areas in NSW.

Paragraph 30 edited to include reference to additional papers.