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Bushfire disaster serves as a wake-up call against unsympathetic government

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NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean hasn't helped the plight of koalas on their path to extinction (Screenshot via YouTube)

The immense destruction we've suffered during the bushfire crisis has opened our eyes to many ways the Government has let us down, writes Sue Arnold.

THE BUSHFIRE INFERNO has highlighted an alarming lack of understanding of the complexities and drawbacks in our rapidly deteriorating legal and political systems.

Such is the level of unfamiliarity with the depths to which governments have stooped, that only a major environmental catastrophe which affected millions of people was likely to wake up dozing Australians.

For years, we’ve lived in a gigantic bubble with no fear of war, famine or anything more serious than terrorist attacks. Yet as politicians have become less and less acceptable, voters continue to support the major parties.

There’s little doubt that smaller parties such as the Greens have proved to be a major disappointment with limited focus on the loss of biodiversity.     

Add the Murdoch empire, dedicated to a steady flow of propaganda, ignoring and rejecting climate change and environmental crises, trashing “ greenies” and giving endless support to the fossil fuel and Right-wing governments.

This is the fake news industry. 

A complete failure to provide leadership during the crises, recognised as a global environmental catastrophe with more than one billion animals lost, should have been an injunction for urgent action. Given Australia’s Olympic record of mammal extinction, a moratorium on further commercial destruction was needed so environmental audits could be undertaken.

Instead, it was business as usual.

On 5 February, Hansard records NSW Minister for the Environment Matt Kean with the following statement:

Make no mistake — this is the most widespread and extreme bushfire disaster our State has ever seen. The Government has a critically important role to do what it can to support environmental recovery. For the benefit of the member for Balmain, I note that this does involve additional resources. Immediate, urgent interventions to support our wildlife and their natural habitats have already begun.

 

We have commenced supplementary food drops for some of our most endangered species, like the brush‑tailed rock wallaby and the mountain pygmy possums in the Kosciusko National Park. Those measures are critical because the destruction of many native animal habitats exposes animals that have escaped the fires to the risk of starvation and dehydration — a situation made worse by the ongoing drought.

 

We have dropped thousands of kilograms of carrots and sweet potatoes from the sky to support our endangered rock wallaby populations and deployed watering stations for koalas at several key sites, particularly on the North Coast.

Minister Kean has ignored the calls for a moratorium on logging in unburned native forests containing primary koala habitat. No moratorium is declared on major urbanisation projects in southwest Sydney, destined to send potentially the last healthy expanding koala population in the state to extinction.

Carers report that the food drops should have been undertaken in consultation with them. Sweet potatoes can’t provide sufficient nutrients and macropods have difficulty in chewing through hard vegetables such as carrots.

“Pellets are a better idea as they contain the relevant nutrients,” said one experienced carer.   

Similarly, whilst watering stations for koalas are useful, without access to healthy eucalypts, koalas and other folivores will die of starvation.  

This week, the scientific committee appointed by Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley, named 113 animal species requiring the most urgent action:

Some of these species, like the Kangaroo Island dunnart, Pugh’s frog and the Blue Mountains water skink, are at imminent risk of extinction because most of their range has been burnt, they were already highly threatened and they are susceptible to fire and its after effects.

 

Other species have a substantial portion of their range potentially affected by fires and require emergency intervention and strategic response to support their recovery. These include species like the smoky mouse, koala and giant burrowing frog.

 

Two priority actions should be carried out for all high priority species: 1) Rapid on-ground surveys to establish extent of population loss and provide a baseline for ongoing monitoring. 2) Protecting unburnt areas within or adjacent to recently burnt ground that provide refuge, as well as unburnt areas that are not adjacent to burnt areas, especially from extensive, intense fire.

It appears that the NSW Government will ignore the recommendations for priority actions, given its refusal to declare a moratorium on logging and development in known koala habitats.  

As a result of koalas being listed as vulnerable only in Queensland and NSW, koalas in South Australia and Victoria are ignored despite massive mortality in both states. 

Professor Helene Marsh, Chair of the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, advised the process for upgrading or listing any wildlife species:

An invitation to nominate is extended by the Minister each year ahead of a new assessment cycle. Nominations submitted within the advertised invitation period and that satisfy the EPBC Regulations are forwarded to the TSSC who prepare a Proposed Priority Assessment List (PPAL) of nominations for consideration by the Minister. The PPAL may include species that are nominated by states and territories through the common assessment method process. The Minister considers the PPAL developed by the Committee and may make changes.

 

The Finalised Priority Assessment List (FPAL) is published on this website and nominators will be notified of the outcome. Nominations included in the FPAL are assessed by the Committee within the timeframe set by the Minister. The Committee will invite public and expert comment on these nominations during the assessment period.

 

The TSSC can recommend to the Minister that a species of concern be added to the FPAL at any time and that the consideration of that listing be done in a short timeframe. However, the processes outlined in the EPBC Act and its Regulations must be followed.

The timeframe of this process can take a minimum of 12 months and potentially years.

In the end, it all boils down to the minister. He/she can reject the upgrading or approve. His/her decision is the final step.

Pictures of burned and injured wildlife continue to appear on social media. 

Endless scams are raising huge amounts of money, highlighting a serious failure to check the credentials of the organisations doing the fundraising.

People have simply reacted to graphic images, put their hands in pockets with no thought other than to help.

Koalas have been a goldmine for scammers and the conservation industry.   

Major conservation organisations have raised almost $100 million. Many big donations have come from overseas and are not reported on in mainstream media. Sydney’s Daily Telegraph revealed that WIRES had raised an incredible $60 million with no significant allocations for wildlife recovery. According to the newspaper, donations to WIRES have come from former U.S. President Barack Obama, TV personality Ellen DeGeneres and other well known U.S. celebs. 

Dr Michael Fox, one of the best-known vets in the U.S. sent IA a press release from the American Veterinary Association indicating in total, VCA Charities has raised $150,000 and will be providing three donations to animal-related charities: one to support veterinarians, one to help wildlife and one to help pets.

‘The AVMA and AVMF are grateful to be able to partner on this effort to further help the animals and veterinarians in need. VCA Charities will match every dollar contributed to AVMF on behalf of the AVA Benevolent Fund, up to $50,000, 100 per cent of which will be directed towards disaster relief efforts in Australia.’

However, the AVA Benevolent Fund website states:

‘The AVA Veterinary Benevolent Fund will be used to assist members financially impacted by the fires as well as members who are doing pro-bono work in the response.’

As the AVA does not respond to phone calls, it is not possible to ascertain how U.S. funds donated to animal-related charities, wildlife or pets have been allocated.

There is no accountability by governments and limited accountability by well-funded organisations. 

Fundraisers for the firefighters raised millions, but where the dollars have gone remain a mystery.

Many people on social media are setting up petitions requesting the Federal Government declare the koala “endangered” under the provisions of the Environment Protection & Biodiversity Act (EPBC).

Petitions are, unfortunately, useless. Australia’s Right-wing governments are deaf to public outcry over the catastrophic consequences to wildlife.

Perhaps one outcome of these crises will be a voting public with a much better understanding of the ongoing failures of our democracy and the inability of courts to provide protection for wildlife.

Will Australia’s unique, iconic species such as the koala survive the appalling lack of urgency and action?

Sue Arnold is an investigative journalist. She heads up Australians for Animals NSW Inc and the U.S. California Gray Whale Coalition. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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