The public is being misinformed about the true fate of koalas following the devastating effects of drought and fires, writes Sue Arnold.
IS THERE A CONSPIRACY to hide the fact NSW koalas are on the verge of extinction? Not in 2050 as WWF continues to predict, but in plain sight now.
Given the ongoing evidence of misinformation across mainstream and social media, one could be forgiven for thinking that a U.S.-style misinformation campaign is in full swing.
In reality, the legacy of the bushfires and drought make it almost 100 per cent certain that NSW koalas are facing looming extinction, save for a few small colonies. The only significant colony remaining is in southwest Sydney.
But no one wants to say “extinction”. Or demand emergency action. Or shift blame for the situation where it belongs — in the laps of NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Murdoch media.
“What I've heard from people doing the surveys is that we might have lost 10,000 koalas from the fires and the droughts. It's brought forward a 2050 extinction projected timeline for most of the populations across the state by years.”
Not only is WWF’s modelled timeline scientifically unacceptable but the irresponsible prediction of extinction by 2050 is repeatedly quoted in mainstream media ad nauseum. No amount of effort on the part of conservation organisations deeply involved in koala issues has deterred WWF from using this “get out of gaol” card for governments.
No amount of modelling could foresee the ongoing impacts to the koala or the Australian environment as a result of a historic drought, dead and dying rivers, massive forest and ecosystem losses combined with bushfire and drought.
Nor is there any mainstream media reporting on the policies of extinction pursued by Berejiklian and Morrison, the drivers of the koalas’ demise.
No one knows the future. All we know is that climate impacts are speeding up and the damage is seen everywhere. The evidence of governments’ neglect is visible to all Australians.
The precedent created in making this projection and any timeline assessment is potentially dangerous. Not only is the rate of climate change impacts unpredictable, but we may well have reached a tipping point as extinctions rapidly increase.
Scientists recently published a warning that one million species could go extinct within decades as a result of economic growth on an unsustainable Earth.
Let’s look at the facts.
No population estimate had been undertaken since 2007-2008 when the NSW 2008 Koala Recovery Plan scientists concluded that 1,000-10,000 koalas remained in NSW.
In 2012, the Federal Government’s estimate was 21,000.
The estimate is based on desktop studies with unacceptably high margins of error. Given the conflict between the State and Federal estimates, koalas would have bred like rabbits to number 36,000 by 2016.
The Chief Scientist’s panel identified key koala areas as Coffs Harbour, Pilliga Forests, Liverpool Plains and Gunnedah, South Coast, Port Macquarie-Hastings and Campbelltown.
With the exception of Campbelltown, these are the populations which have suffered catastrophic losses as a result of bushfire and drought. Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley identified the mid-north coast koala loss from bushfires at over 8,000 animals. Pilliga Forests and Gunnedah have been severely impacted by climate change-driven droughts with populations dropping from 15,000 to near collapse. Chlamydia is rife in Gunnedah and the huge Shenhua mine, if it is approved, will ensure further losses.
Given the Chief Scientist’s identification of key populations, the evidence of a potential wipeout as a result of bushfire and drought is clear. Every key population, save Campbelltown, has been either cremated or died of starvation and thirst. There are few survivors and even fewer places to release any koalas which have recovered from burns and starvation.
Koalas are completely reliant on healthy eucalypt leaves for moisture and nutrients. No substitute food exists.
Southwest Sydney koalas are the state’s largest healthy expanding koala colony with no major mortality or loss of habitat due to bushfires. Drought caused dehydration and ash from fires caused some loss of nutrients, coating the eucalypt leaves leaving koalas weakened, but still surviving.
But southwest Sydney koalas have been deliberately wiped off the Government’s designated koala management areas.
At an expert elicitation workshop held in July 2018, seven koala management areas were identified — Northern Tablelands, North Coast, Central Coast, South Coast, Southern Tablelands, Western slopes and plains, far west and southwest.
Invitees to the November 2018 National Parks and Wildlife Service Taronga Zoo Symposium were shown six identified koala hubs which did not include southwest Sydney. NPWS scientists were unable to explain the omission.
Each of the six koala management areas has been severely impacted by drought or bushfire.
Australians for Animals Inc researched every local government area in NSW with koala habitat creating a database of the most recent records of koala numbers.
This database is a baseline of koala numbers in NSW. The data demonstrates every population was in decline and many estimates were outdated. With the twin disasters heaped on koalas in virtually every koala LGA, there’s a very strong probability that koalas are on the verge of extinction in NSW.
Some small colonies have survived, but their future is grim. Without good nutrients, koalas are unable to reproduce or carry joeys to term. Young koalas need to disperse, habitat is extremely limited.
Development continues without a shred of concern for this irreplaceable animal.
The Berejiklian Government has resisted significant efforts to create any koala national parks, nor are there any climate refuges.
Morrison, Berejiklian and all other state premiers ignored the International Union for the Conservation of Nature report that designated the koala as one of the world’s ten most vulnerable species to climate change.
Huge urbanisation projects are in train. Southwest Sydney is the focus of another one million people in an already overcrowded area overlapping primary koala habitat.
Add the potential for climate change refugees as the planet gets hotter and promises of unlimited growth with a future population of 50 million.
The time to act is now. NSW and Federal Governments must protect every single living koala and all remaining habitat if there’s to be any chance of the species survival.
There are no emergency provisions to upgrade listed EPBC species. Any submission to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee can take a minimum of a year to be considered. NSW and Federal Parliament could enact emergency provisions under existing legislation but have failed to do so.
With so little public understanding of the legal barriers which guarantee no action by governments and predictions which are on the same par as fortune tellers, any real response seems an impossible dream.
Sussan Ley’s expert panel has no koala expert involved and there’s no input to a recent preliminary report from koala scientists — a fact that appears to be of no interest to the mainstream media.
A royal commission into the failure to provide any protection for koalas by the Federal, NSW, Queensland, Victorian and South Australian Governments is overdue.
Conservation organisations, scientists and mainstream media have a responsibility to tell a deeply concerned public the truth.
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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