Vulnerable creatures ... six-year-old female koala Bluejeans with Nancy Small at Waterways Wildlife Park, Gunnedah, Australia's 'koala capital'. Photo: Dallas Kilponen
IN THE absence of any exact figure, Gunnedah's koala population is best measured by the number spotted on the three kilometre drive from town to the local sanctuary.
Five years ago, three or four sightings were not uncommon.
Now, ''you'd be lucky'' to see one, says Nancy Small, who has been tending to injured koalas for three decades in Australia's ''koala capital''.
''The population's changed because they're spreading out more,'' said Mrs Small, 64, who runs Waterways Wildlife Park.
''You don't see as many as you used to see.''
Yesterday koalas were listed as ''vulnerable'' across NSW, Queensland and the ACT under federal environment law after decades of population decline. They were listed as endangered in Hawks Nest and Tea Gardens, as well as Pittwater in Sydney.
In the 20 years to 2010, their estimated number in NSW plummeted from 31,400 to 21,000, a decline of 33 per cent. North of the border, the drop was more dramatic - 43 per cent to 167,000.
In Gunnedah, now at the centre of a large and expanding mining district on the Liverpool Plains, one study by ecological consultant David Paull found the koala population had fallen from 15,000 in the early to mid-90s to between 500 and 2000.
Mrs Small said the extreme heat during the recent drought had affected koalas, while dogs and cars were also regular sources of injury and death.
The threatened species listing will allow the federal government to intervene in plans for new mines and housing developments if a koala population or habitat is affected.
While the announcement was greeted with cautious optimism, some environmentalists raised concerns about koalas living in many NSW state forests where logging occurs exempt from the burdens of the new listing.
The South East Region Conservation Alliance said only 30 Strzelecki koalas - a genetically distinct breed found only on the far south coast of NSW and in Gippsland, Victoria - would still be under threat from imminent logging in the state's south despite the threatened species listing.
The alliance spokeswoman, Prue Acton, said the rare koala should be treated differently from others. ''That population needs to be excised for both Victoria and NSW.''