November 10, 2009 / 2:50 AM / in 10 years

Australian koalas fast declining, researchers say

CANBERRA, Nov 10 (Reuters) - Australia’s koalas have suffered a sharp population decline because of development, bushfires and global warming, and could vanish within decades, researchers said on Tuesday.

Mainland Australia’s wild koala population was between 43,000 and 80,000, well under previous estimates of more than 100,000, with the animals facing possible extinction in about 30 years, the Australian Koala Foundation said.

"The koalas are missing everywhere we look," foundation chief executive Deborah Tabart said. "It’s really no tree, no me. If you keep cutting down tees you don’t have any koalas."

Tabart and fellow researchers are in Canberra to urge government officials to declare the koala a threatened species and ensure more protection for koala habitats. Scientists say arid Australia is being hard-hit by climate warming.

The Koala Foundation, Tabart said, collected data from 1,800 field sites and 80,000 specific trees to keep track of numbers.

But in one area of northern Queensland state which had an estimated 20,000 koalas a decade ago, a team of eight people did not find even one koala after four days of recent searching.

Koalas live in eucalypt forests in Australia’s east and south, and are notoriously fussy about what types of eucalyptus leaves they eat.

The government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee in 2006 rejected calls to list koalas as a vulnerable species, finding there were likely to be hundreds of thousands of koalas in the wild.

The committee will make its next recommendation in mid-2010.

(Reporting by James Grubel; Editing by Rob Taylor and Sugita Katyal)

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