Under a photograph of a koala that appeared to be singed and in distress, text read:
“The chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, estimates that over 1000 koalas have been killed from the fires and that 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed. Recent bushfires, along with prolonged drought and deforestation has led to koalas becoming functionally extinct according to experts. Functional extinction is when a population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable. While some individuals could reproduce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely and highly susceptible to disease.”
That page (and many others) linked to a November 23 2019 Forbes blog post headlined “Koalas ‘Functionally Extinct’ After Australia Bushfires Destroy 80% Of Their Habitat.” As of November 25 2019, the page indicated the article had been viewed roughly 2.3 million times; a mouseover pop-up indicated the post was part of the Forbes blogging platform, rather than its editorial site.
The blog post claimed:
As Australia experiences record-breaking drought and bushfires, koala populations have dwindled along with their habitat, leaving them “functionally extinct.”
The chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, estimates that over 1,000 koalas have been killed from the fires and that 80 percent of their habitat has been destroyed.
Recent bushfires, along with prolonged drought and deforestation has led to koalas becoming “functionally extinct” according to experts.
Functional extinction is when a population becomes so limited that they no longer play a significant role in their ecosystem and the population becomes no longer viable. While some individuals could produce, the limited number of koalas makes the long-term viability of the species unlikely and highly susceptible to disease.
At some point after the post went viral (but presumably after “The Other 98%” shared the post), a portion was added. We saw no notation or other indication that text had been interspersed into the above-excerpted text (between “destroyed” and “recent”):
However, some researchers call into question whether koalas are actually functionally extinct, noting how difficult it is to measure total koala populations and populations could be a much larger than estimated by the AKF.
Koalas are now ‘functionally extinct’ due to bush fires
The impact of Australia’s recent devastating bush fires on Koala populations may be worse than initially feared.
Sadly, Deborah Tabart who is the chairman of the Australian Koala Foundation, estimates that over 80% of their habitat has been burnt.
This had led to the marsupials being declared “functionally extinct”.
A link appeared in both the original Forbes blog post and updated version, published by the BBC in May 2019. It was titled “Koalas are ‘functionally extinct’, say campaigners,” and reported:
Animal campaigners say that koala numbers have fallen so low that the animal is “functionally extinct”.
The Australian Koala Foundation says there are fewer than 80,000 koalas left in the wild.
On Facebook and in aggregated versions, the claim was that the November 2019 bushfires in Australia led to functional extinction of koalas.
A Wikipedia page on functionally extinct species listed seven functionally extinct species and defined that condition as follows:
Functional extinction is the extinction of a species or other taxon such that:
¹ It disappears from the fossil record, or historic reports of its existence cease;
² The reduced population no longer plays a significant role in ecosystem function; or
³ The population is no longer viable. There are no individuals able to reproduce, or the small population of breeding individuals will not be able to sustain itself due to inbreeding depression and genetic drift, which leads to a loss of fitness.
Directly beneath that part, the entry displayed claims from May 2019 about koalas being “functionally extinct.” According to that section, that rumor emerged as Australians headed to the polls:
On May 10, 2019, the Australian Koala Foundation issued a press release that opened with the sentence “The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) believes Koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia.” The press release was reported on by multiple news agencies around the world, with most repeating the AKF’s statement. Despite this, Koalas are not currently considered functionally extinct; while their population has decreased, the IUCN Red List lists them only as “Vulnerable”. The AKF’s press release was released on the eve of the 2019 elections in Australia, where topics such as climate change were major issues.
After the May 2019 press release was reported worldwide, New Scientist addressed the widespread claims, which at the time were reported internationally:
Who has said koalas are “functionally extinct”?
The Australian Koala Foundation, which lobbies for the animals’ protection, has put out a press release stating that it “believes koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia”. The release triggered a flurry of worried headlines.
So are they?
No, although many populations of koalas are falling sharply due to habitat loss and global warming.
Could they go extinct?
There is no danger of koalas going extinct in Australia overall, says biologist Christine Adams-Hosking of the University of Queensland, who has studied the marsupials’ plight. “But at the rate of habitat clearing that is going on, we are going to see increased local population extinctions,” she says.
Why has the AKF made this claim now?
The claim was made on the eve of elections in Australia in which environmental issues such as climate change have become a big issue. The AFK has called on politicians to act. “There’s a lot of politics going on, and somehow the koala gets involved,” says Adams-Hosking.
In light of the viral blog post on the Forbes platform, New Scientist included a note at the top:
This story was written in May 2019. The claim that koalas are functionally extinct was repeated after forest fires in November 2019. This time it has also been claimed that 80 per cent of their habitat has been destroyed. But ecologist Diana Fisher says the fires damaged only 1 million hectares of the 100 million hectares of forest in eastern Australia, and that koalas are still nowhere near functionally extinct.
CNet picked the claim up on November 24 2019, reporting:
“I do not believe koalas are functionally extinct — yet,” says Rebecca Johnson, a koala geneticist at the Australian Museum. “That said, the fires are likely to have had a huge impact on what we know are some extremely valuable populations who are important for the long term survival of the species.”
On May 10 , the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), a nonprofit dedicated to conservation of the iconic marsupial, dropped a press release stating the organization believes that “koalas may be functionally extinct in the entire landscape of Australia” and that koala numbers could be as low as 80,000. The declaration was made just prior to Australia’s last election, when climate change was a core political issue.
The press release didn’t provide information on how koala numbers were counted. The AKF did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the top of the article, CNet noted that reports “abound that [November 2019] bushfires have pushed the cuddly marsupial to the brink,” but the species “has actually been under threat for much longer.”
Following news of Australian bushfires in November 2019, a Forbes blogger initially reported experts declared koalas “functionally extinct”; the link spread on Facebook like, well, wildfire. However, the claims it contained stemmed from a subsequently-debunked May 2019 press release issued by the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) just ahead of elections in that country. At the time of its release in May 2019 it was widely reported — and then widely corrected. The original claim was revived in November 2019, but wildlife experts confirmed that koalas — while endangered — were not yet functionally extinct in Australia.