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Inquiry to reveal koala extinction truth

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A koala left homeless after clear-felling in NSW (Image courtesy @KoalaCrisis)

A new Parliamentary Inquiry into the future of the koala is likely to uncover the Berejiklian Government's history of negligence, reckless mismanagement and refusal to listen to the experts. Sue Arnold reports.

In an historic step forward, the NSW Greens announced the creation of a Parliamentary Inquiry into the future of the koala in NSW.   

The Inquiry's committee will be chaired by the Planning and Environment Committee chair and Greens Member of the Legislative Council Cate Faehrmann, and has the numbers to ensure a fair hearing.

Finally, the public will learn the truth which includes: 

  • the dirty deals with developers and councils;  
  • the impacts of repealing the Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 and the Native Vegetation Act 2003
  • the out-of-control logging of coastal native forest ecosystems — now targeted for burning as “bio-energy”;
  • the major conflict of interest issues concerning government appointments and grants;
  • a failure to include, discuss or recognise communities and their concerns;
  • the lack of monitoring, or compliance; and 
  • the absolute refusal of the NSW Government to protect koalas and their habitat.

Hopefully, the hearing will investigate the Roads and Maritime Services' (RMS) ongoing wipe-outs of koalas with carte blanche government approval via State Significant Infrastructure provisions.

The legal impacts of the NSW Bilateral Agreement being negotiated with the Commonwealth and the Common Assessment Method ( Memorandum of Understanding), which effectively remove any upgraded level of protection must also be included in the terms of reference.

In an expensive effort to persuade a deeply concerned public, the NSW Government set up a raft of projects. Not one project has addressed habitat loss and the impacts of the lack of legal protection for habitat.

Projects include:

Public consultation was excluded from the Chief Scientist’s “expert panel”. Her panel also failed to include NGOs, community representatives or expert koala ecologists.

Recent major policy changes including translocation of koalas have been sequestered among the exclusive few with no community input. Attendees to the Koala research symposium were by invitation only. The symposium was preceded by an expert elicitation process. 25 "experts" were included in the elicitation process but the soon to be eradicated Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) refused to provide the names of the experts until recently.

No NGOs, community organisations or expert koala ecologists were included in the Koala research plan's expert elicitation knowledge gaps process, convened to identify the “research gaps”. A summary of responses demonstrated that habitat loss and connectivity were by far the most critical issues.  

Nevertheless, the Government ignored the responses, focusing instead on any issue that allowed habitat loss and exponential clearing to be put in the "too hard basket".

The Koala expert panel was set up with no NGOs, no community groups, no koala ecologists.

Public submissions to the NSW Koala Strategy were not published. Instead, a summary, 'Public submissions: NSW Koala Strategy and draft Saving Our Species Iconic Koala Project' was provided by the OEH, in spite of many requests by conservation organisations to publish the submissions.

Excerpts from the summary indicate the primary problem facing koala survival:

Habitat loss and fragmentation was identified as the priority threat to koalas across all submissions with views varying on how to address this issue. The majority of submissions urged meaningful action and stronger measures to protect habitat by addressing forestry, urban development and infrastructure and recent changes to land clearing protections.

 

Submissions from environmental organisations and community groups identified habitat destruction and fragmentation, urban development and climate change as key threats, and called for stronger protections to prevent habitat loss through SEPP 44, the Biodiversity Conservation and Local Land Services Acts, forestry operations, and development assessment processes, including state-significant development.

 

Habitat loss and fragmentation was identified as the priority threat to koalas across all

campaign and non-campaign submissions.

 

The campaign submissions all called for stronger measures to protect koala habitat. In the non-campaign submissions, habitat loss and fragmentation was the most cited threat with nearly half of these submissions identifying this as a threat to koalas. Of these, most submissions specifically raised concerns about: • forest harvesting practices • clearing under the new Biodiversity Conservation and Local Land Services Amendment Acts • clearing for urban development and infrastructure (roads, mining). Many submissions identified the need for stronger legal protection and compliance measures to protect koala habitat, including recognising the importance of: • unoccupied habitat • paddock trees • shelter trees • windbreaks • corridors and stepping stones between habitat

 

Some submissions expressed concern that climate change, drought and heatwaves would not only negatively affect koalas, but also their feed and shelter trees. In response to these pressures, submissions suggested increasing the links between koala habitat to allow koala populations to move in response to changing climate, and strengthening planning controls to ensure movement corridors are protected. 

Recommendations from submissions included:

  • Prioritise habitat creation; 
  • Identify areas of potential koala occupancy and improve and restore koala habitat there, too; 
  • Promote planting of koala food trees;
  • Prioritise actions in those areas that are at most immediate risk;
  • Publish a report on progress in implementing the adopted Priority Action Statement (PAS) from 2014;
  • Develop SMART goals to ensure the Iconic Koala Project is rigorous and measurable;
  • Establish area targets and clearly prioritise actions required between sites and regions; and
  • Better regulate private native forestry. 

Unfortunately, as usual, submissions and recommendations fell on deaf ears.  

At least $44 million in taxpayer funds have been allocated to koalas. In May, the OEH released a Koala grants/Koala Research Plan list of grants totalling $1.93 million. A close look at how these taxpayer funds have been spent provides ample evidence of the Berejiklian Government’s complete refusal to acknowledge any of the recommendations by virtually all the panels, symposium and public submissions.

More than half a million dollars of the grant funds went to universities in Queensland. More than $696,000 went to research into chlamydia. Grants for research into a chlamydia vaccine have been generously donated by the Australian Research Council and various government projects totalling well over $5 million.

Yet, there is no available vaccine. Limited trials have been largely unsuccessful. 

As Professor Frank Carrick commented, the funds spent on developing a chlamydia vaccine are, in effect, medicalising a conservation issue:

Koalas and chlamydiae have had a usually stable host/parasite relationship for probably millions of years — so it's a pretty safe bet that chlamydial infections (or even diseases) by themselves will not cause the extinction of the species. That is not to say that chlamydial disease in koalas is not an important proximate cause of mortality that has been a major factor in local extinctions previously and is currently a major proximate cause of mortality associated with the severe decline of some populations currently. But the underlying or ultimate cause of mortality is the continuing destruction and fragmentation of koala habitat. The present NSW Government has recently gutted the protection of koala habitat in NSW, so that in effect no koala habitat is safe from destruction, other than the comparatively trivial additions to the state's protected areas. 

 

 It should be noted that despite the expenditure of many millions of dollars and a huge amount of international research effort over the best part of half a century, there is still no vaccine available to prevent human chlamydial infections. Even if a safe and effective vaccine to prevent chlamydial disease in koalas was available there are good reasons not to use it in wild populations.

Given the logistics of any attempt to capture wild koala populations, inject each animal with a vaccine of unknown success, monitor and gauge the responses, the funds allocated by the NSW Government are a waste of taxpayers’ funds.

It is worth noting that koala care groups say that when a chlamydia-affected koala is placed in a healthy habitat with good nutrients, the animals recover. Extremely sick koalas have to be euthanised but the evidence of habitat health can’t be ignored.

The inquiry into koalas in NSW will expose a State Government that should go down in history as responsible for the deliberate extinction of the species in NSW.

The inquiry is expected to last a year, with major international exposure on the reasons why Australia has one of the worst rates of species extinction in the world.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

You can follow Sue Arnold on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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