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Australia's koalas could be become extinct within 30 years unless urgent action is taken to halt a decline in the population, researchers say.

Development, climate change and bushfires have all contributed in reducing the numbers of wild koalas. The sexually transmitted disease chlamydia has also played a part in the animal's demise. In the past six years alone the population may have dropped by half according to a survey carried out by the Australian Koala Foundation.

Previous estimates put the number of koalas at more than 100,000. However recent estimates show there may be as few as 43,000. The foundation collected field data from 1,800 sites and 80,000 trees to calculate the numbers. In one area in northern Queensland estimated to have 20,000 koalas a decade ago, a team of eight people could not find a single animal in four days of searching.

Problems have been caused by deforestation, but the situation has been exacerbated by hotter, drier conditions attributed to global warming which has reduced the nutritional value of their staple food, eucalyptus leaves. This in turn has led to malnutrition. Koalas, which are confined to forests in Australia's south and east, are notoriously fussy about what types of the leaves they eat.

Foundation chief Deborah Tabart said she hopes the new figures will persuade the government's Threatened Species Steering Committee (TSSC) to list the koala as threatened. "The koalas are missing everywhere we look. It's really no tree, no me. If you keep cutting down trees you don't have any koalas," Tabart said. However the committee chairman Bob Beeton said a decision was not likely until mid-2010. Even then the koala's status would not be a factor, despite it being one of the country's favorite animals.

"There's a number of species which are charismatic and emotionally charged," Beeton said, "We don't consider that...we'd consider the koala with the same level of diligence and dedication as if it were the death adder."

While the Australian Koala Foundation stands by its research, the statistics are not universally accepted, because koalas are difficult to count. The director of the Wildlife Health and Conservation Centre at Sydney University, David Phalen, said, " Koalas are threatened in Queensland and northern New South Wales, but numbers elsewhere are increasing."