Politics Opinion

Government neglect leaves koalas endangered

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Too little, too late — Scott Morrison is using koalas as an Election publicity stunt (Screenshot via YouTube)

As a result of the Government ignoring the plight of koalas, the species has now been listed as endangered, writes Sue Arnold.

ENVIRONMENT MINISTER Sussan Ley has declared koalas are now endangered in NSW, Queensland and the A.C.T. In 2012, Tony Burke, as Minister for the Environment, declared the koala vulnerable under the provisions of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) lists of vulnerable, endangered and critically endangered fauna.

A recovery plan was required to be developed within three years of the listing. By the time three years had elapsed, the L-NP had won office installing Greg Hunt as Environment Minister. Hunt signed off on further delays of any recovery plan, left languishing in the too-hard basket.

However, in June 2021, the Federal Government produced a Draft National Recovery Plan for koalas which was open to public comment.

IA carried out an in-depth analysis of the draft. Under ‘Native forestry’, the draft indicates that ‘timber production can have a variety of impacts on koala populations’. Incredibly, the paper asserts that NSW Department of Industries forest scientists found koala occupancy was ‘not influenced by timber harvesting intensity, time since harvesting, land tenure, landscape harvesting extent or old-growth forest extent’

A brief reference to the 2019/2020 bushfires indicates that the Natural Resources Commission (NRC) is undertaking to investigate how koalas and their habitat are responding after the fires:

‘The report on the findings of this research will be provided to the NSW Government in June 2021.’

Ms Ley didn’t bother to mention that since the NRC report was delivered in June 2021, the NSW Government has gone to extraordinary lengths to ensure the report is not released to the public.

Leaked excerpts revealed by The Guardian demonstrated an appalling decline of forest fauna identified in extreme and high-risk forests with recommendations to cease logging operations for periods up to three years.

Footage of Prime Minister Scott Morrison nosing a koala was recently dished up to the public, a clear indication that the level of concern for this iconic species was an important marketing moment for re-election prospects. 

Morrison’s koala effort was soon followed by $50 million funding of various initiatives to protect koalas. IA put a series of questions to the Minister through her media advisor since the ongoing promises of funding and past funding have not been audited.

IA was particularly interested in habitat restoration projects which the Minister has sought to emphasise.

A spokesperson responded to IA’s request for details of the projects.

The response:

‘Projects across New South Wales are located on the north coast, northern tablelands, north-west NSW, the Hunter region and southern highlands and far south coast of NSW. Queensland projects are located in SE Queensland and central Queensland.’

No details were provided. 

The spokesperson indicated that:

‘...on-ground actions for the eight habitat projects are occurring across greater than 2,000 hectares in koala habitat areas of NSW and Queensland.’

No details were provided.

The much-touted national koala monitoring program has not begun.

IA was advised that:

‘The program is being designed and implemented in partnership with CSIRO which is completing pilot studies to compare different survey methods with full implementation expected in early 2022.’

No count has been undertaken since the deadly fires and there’s still no proper estimate of the extent of loss. The only verifiable fact is that the loss continues as state and federal governments refuse to undertake proper non-desktop study population estimates, rejecting any likelihood of legal habitat protection.

Ley's announcement of an upgrading of koala protection fitted perfectly with the marketing scenario that Morrison has orchestrated.

No doubt the PM counted on good publicity resulting from the announcement with criticism barely causing a ripple.

Mainstream media coverage of Ley’s announcement is nothing short of appalling. There’s no analysis of her actions as Minister for the Environment which have resulted in distressing losses of habitat and koalas. Not a word about industrial logging which is by far the major cause of species loss. Nothing about massive urbanisation projects approved by Ley which are wiping out the habitat of the remaining healthiest population of koalas in southwest Sydney.

The Regional Forest Agreements between the Commonwealth and State Governments of NSW, Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania allow these Governments to exclude the section of the EPBC Act which provides for the protection of wildlife and the environment.

Logging destroys koala habitat, koalas and significant biodiversity which share the coastal forest ecosystem. Legal challenges over breaches of the RFAs are well nigh impossible.

Many of the species being wiped out by logging are under consideration by the Federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee for upgrading to “endangered” status.

Ms Ley has ignored any effort to impose mandatory provisions on federal koala guidelines which allow developers to self-regulate. If a project is “referred” by a developer to the Federal Government, a koala management plan is required. However, these plans have no similar methodology and are unavailable for public comment or perusal.

Climate change impacts have been completely disregarded in spite of the international union for the conservation of nature warning the koala was one of ten global species at risk. Scientists providing advice to the union have indicated koalas are likely to die of starvation and thirst as the nutrient loss caused by lack of moisture to the eucalypt leaves of which the species depend dries up.

The Draft Recovery Plan mentions climate change impacts in the 105-page document but there’s no sense of urgency or the critical importance of identifying refuge areas or creating koala national parks. 

The mainstream media has apparently forgotten Ley is the same Minister who has worked tirelessly to weaken the EPBC Act, or that the recommendations of the Samuel Independent Review of the EPBC Act have not been implemented. 

The status of South Australian and Victorian koalas has been ignored and any slim protection that an endangered status provides to the NSW, Queensland and A.C.T. koalas is not available to these populations.

The Victorian Government has no current population estimate available in spite of over 12 months of freedom of information requests by IA. Evidence of genetic problems has been well demonstrated by scientific research. The South Australian Government has no current population estimate and wildlife shelters say major urbanisation projects are destroying the remaining koala habitat.

The most effective policy an incoming Labor Government could introduce is an urgent and immediate royal commission into policies of extinction by the state and federal governments. No more senate inquiries with recommendations ignored. 

Upgrading koalas to endangered status is a useless act unless the real threats are addressed and actioned. 

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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