Culture

Koalas Are In Trouble, But They’re Not ‘Functionally Extinct’

The recent bushfires have put koalas in terrible risk.

Lewis The Koala koalas bushfires

Across the world, Lewis the koala has become the face of the Australian bushfires.

Our hearts broke watching footage of him surrounded by fire, wailing in pain as he was doused in water and wrapped in a shirt literally taken off the back of his rescuer.

Tragically Lewis’ burns were too severe to recover from.

The image of Lewis — with his paws wrapped in bright orange and blue bandages, his ears singed and his nose burnt — quickly went viral. So did plenty of stories reporting that koalas are functionally extinct. The thing is, they’re not.

They’re Not Functionally Extinct — But They’re Not Doing Well

The phrase ‘functionally extinct’ refers to when a population is so low that the species is no longer viable.

This isn’t the case for koalas, thank god. Our favourite marsupials are officially classed as ‘vulnerable to extinction,’ just one step above endangered.

Experts estimate there could be around 300,000 koalas in the wild, but exact numbers are hard to count because much of their habitat is inaccessible.

Claims that 80% of this habitat were destroyed in the fires also went viral, but turned out not to be true.

Lewis The Climate Change Martyr

Regardless, the claims helped catapult Lewis’ plight into the global consciousness.

As his story went viral, donations flooded into a fundraiser set up to support the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital where he was being cared for. More than $1.7 million has been raised so far, smashing their initial target of $25,000.

After his death, #RIPLewis began trending on Twitter.

Before Lewis, the Australian bushfires may have been on the radar of some people overseas, but he sent the story global.

So far bushfires have claimed six lives, and more than 600 homes. The Insurance Council of Australia says the damage bill has passed $145 million in QLD and NSW. That’s a lot of human sufferers, victims of the same bushfires.

So what makes Lewis’ story cut through?

Well, on top of all that, over 1.65 million hectares of bushland has been destroyed in NSW alone. Parts of the country that we never expected fire to reach have been burnt. Vulnerable species, like the koala, are becoming casualties of a changing climate they had nothing to do with.

For many, Lewis is a symbol of how human-accelerated climate change is effecting all life on earth.

The fact that koalas are adorable, vulnerable icons of Australia makes their possible disappearance doubly concerning.

Across the world, people are already worried about the effects that climate change, political inaction and carelessness are having on our planet and those we share it with.

But people descended into a slanging match about who or what was to blame for the bushfires, love for Lewis temporarily united the country.

RIP Lewis.


Feature Image courtesy of Facebook/ Koala Hospital Port Macquarie