For species that are increasingly threatened by the combined effects of habitat loss and climate change, we need to identify priority regions where we should be focussing our conservation efforts. In the case of specialist leaf-eaters, considering the effects of climate change on the distributions of their essential food resources should be a key component of conservation planning. The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) was listed in 2012 as Vulnerable under Commonwealth Government law in the states of Queensland and New South Wales (including the ACT). Yet the synergistic threats to this species continue unabated.
Research reveals ongoing declines in koala populations, primarily attributed to habitat loss in the coastal east (urbanisation) and climate change (more extreme drought and heatwaves) in the more arid west of their range. These declines are often being observed in areas that had previously been considered 'stronghold' areas for koalas in Queensland and New South Wales. Compounding the problem are disease and the secondary effects of urbanisation, namely collisions with cars and attacks by dogs.
We addressed the question of where koalas and their critical habitats are most likely to persist under climate change by incorporating predictive models into a conservation prioritization analysis.We found that the inclusion of key koala food trees affected the identification of priority regions for conserving koalas and those priority regions are predicted to shift considerably, often outside the current range of this species, posing additional challenges for its conservation.
Image: Conservation planning needs to incorporate both the species of conservation concern and its critical food and habitat resources when developing spatial models of areas of high conservation priority. You can't model the future of the koala without incorporating the trees it depends upon. Photo: N Smith