Conservationists say koala populations have plunged in much of eastern Australia over the past two decades, warning that they are now sliding towards extinction.
Australia has officially listed koalas across a swathe of its eastern coast as "endangered", with the marsupials fighting to survive the impact of bushfires, land-clearing, drought and disease.
Environment Minister Sussan Ley said Friday's move will offer koalas a higher level of protection in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland.
"We are taking unprecedented action to protect the koala," the minister said.
Ley highlighted a recent government promise of $36 million (Aus$50 million) to protect and recover koala habitats.
Environmentalists welcomed the koalas' new status, but condemned Australia's failure to protect the species so far.
The koala, a globally recognised symbol of Australia's unique wildlife, had been listed as "vulnerable" on the eastern coast just a decade earlier.
"Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline," said WWF-Australia conservation scientist Stuart Blanch.
"Today's decision is welcome but it won't stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it's accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes."
Conservationists said it was hard to give precise figures on koala populations in the affected eastern states.
But estimates by an independent government advisory body — the Threatened Species Scientific Committee — indicated that koala numbers had slumped from 185,000 in 2001 to just 92,000 in 2021.
Alexia Wellbelove of the Humane Society International said east coast koalas could be extinct by 2050 if no action was taken. "We can't afford any more clearing," she said.
The Australian Conservation Foundation said its own research showed that the federal government had approved the clearing of more than 25,000 hectares of koala habitat since the species was declared vulnerable a decade ago.
"Australia’s national environment laws are so ineffective they have done little to stem the ongoing destruction of koala habitat in Queensland and NSW...," said Basha Stasak, the foundation's nature campaign manager.
"We must stop allowing their homes to be bulldozed for mines, new housing estates, agricultural projects and industrial logging."