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Koalas: A Sentinel Species

July 15, 2011

Removal of Koala Habitat. Photo Mark Gerada

Koalas are totally dictated by the habitat they live in – they are not opportunistic and they are unable to change. Cheyne Flanagan, supervisor at the Koala Hospital at Port Macquarie, explains that “koalas are the sentinel species” for the rest of the organisms that live in the same ecosystem. Koalas are like the “canary in the mine”, so to speak – if koalas are dying, they serve as a warning to other species – all other species who also rely totally on that habitat go down the tube with the koala. For example, there are two quite recently discovered species of moth who specifically lay their eggs in koala faeces and nothing else. The larvae use the koala faeces as their source of food until they pupate, hatch and emerge. Remove the koala and remove the moths. And so on. Other more opportunistic and robust species will move to eat and live and adapt in other habitats. But koalas cannot do this. They cannot survive without their habitat.

 

Removal of Habitat

Cheyne says that the decline in koala numbers is happening plain and simply because of the removal of forest for human development, and no other reason. All the diseases that are manifesting in koalas is of concern, and absorbs a lot of funding, but these diseases are simply manifesting from the disturbance of their habitat. More thought and energy needs to go into into preserving koala habitat, and how we can plan the way we live as a species around this and in conjunction with this. The bonus is if we conserve the koala habitat that remains and pro-actively plant new forests, all of the existing protected and new habitat becomes huge carbon sinks.

 

Biodiversity and Economics

Koalas are much more than a national icon – they are a symbol of the greater environment and our own existence as a species. It is all very well to tell big manufacturers they are polluting and producing greenhouse gases, but current practices in destroying forested areas for urban development is also causing increases in greenhouse gases. We have to ask ourselves, “Development for the growth of the economy”, or, “Development for our environment?” The CSIRO‘s chief executive, Dr John Stocker, after whom one of the above mentioned moths will be named, said “I believe research into biodiversity is essential for Australia’s future economic prosperity and for our environmental health – the two, after all, are inseparable.”

 

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