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New koala recovery plan is just more political spin

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The new recovery plan from the Federal Government will fail to provide the protection dying koalas need (Image by Dan Jensen)

A recovery plan put forth by the Australian Government to save our dying koala population shows a lack of willingness to take action, writes Sue Arnold.

IN 2012, KOALAS in Queensland, NSW and the A.C.T. were listed under the EPBC Act as vulnerable. A recovery plan was required within three years but Greg Hunt, then Minister for the Environment, signed off on a delay that was ongoing. No doubt this was a result of Hunt’s extraordinary endeavours to implement one-stop-shop bilateral agreements, handing responsibility for environmental protection to the states with minimal Federal Government oversight.

The Draft Recovery Plan finally released by the Federal Government in June 2021 is a recipe for disaster, allowing massive destruction of koala habitat and incapable of providing desperately needed protection.

The plan acknowledges that an estimated 61,000 koalas were killed, injured or affected in some way by the catastrophic bushfires. An incredible loss. Koalas are already significantly impacted by ongoing droughts and heatwaves caused by climate change, industrial logging, infrastructure, major urban development and mining. 

According to the document:

‘The goal of the recovery plan is to reverse the trend of decline in population size of the listed koala, by having resilient, connected and genetically healthy metapopulations across its range, and to increase the extent, quality and connectivity of habitat occupied.’

Familiar spin. In July, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean set a goal of doubling the number of koalas by 2050. Just exactly how this goal would be achieved given that Kean is one of the ministers responsible for the industrial logging of remaining primary koala habitats is unclear.

According to press reports, Kean aims for “at least another 20,000 koalas by then”. Given that the Berejiklian Government has steadfastly refused to undertake a population estimate after the bushfires and the most current estimate dates back to 2008, Kean’s statements are nothing more than political spin.

The koala policy of this anti-environment NSW Government has consistently been one of allowing wholesale habitat destruction after the fires whilst piling on propaganda which has no basis in fact.

Similarly, the Federal Government’s draft plan is light on substance and heavy on spin:

Three objectives for the listed koala are that by 2031:

 

Objective 1: The area of occupancy and size of populations that are declining, suspected to be declining and predicted to decline are increased.

Objective 2: Metapopulation processes are maintained or improved.

Objective 3: Communities and individuals have a greater role and capability in koala conservation and management.

Virtually every national koala conservation plan and all states’ strategies have stressed the primary threat to koalas is the ongoing destruction of habitat.

The National Koala Conservation Strategy 1998 made the following statement:

Loss of habitat is the major threat to the koala and is the main factor responsible for declining populations. This continuing problem, which results mainly from clearing or fragmentation of forest and woodland, must be addressed.

 

Clearing is mainly associated with urban development in coastal areas and pastoral development in inland wooded areas. Unless offset by habitat restoration, clearing results not only in net loss of habitat but the fragmentation of that which remains, and contributes to permanent decreases in population size and reduced long term population viability.

Yet in 2021, neither the Federal or State Governments are willing to provide the foundational response to ensure any survival of the species. Without habitat protection, koalas are doomed.

The lack of action may be a result of one eye-popping sentence in the plan:

‘Extinction debt, whereby the local loss of koala populations after habitat loss has tipped over the threshold for long-term persistence, can take up to 100 years to manifest itself.’

Given that the current crop of governments is hell-bent on growth at any cost, it is highly unlikely any current politician will bear the brunt of their policies of koala extinction.

Direct threats identified by the plan have introduced a brand new marketing language. Instead of industrial logging as a major threat, we now have ‘vegetation change through forest harvesting’.

Objective 3 and Strategy 1 of the plan is to ‘build and share knowledge’ focused on giving ‘communities and individuals... a greater role and capability in koala conservation and management’. A hollow joke. 

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian followed the steps set down by former Premier Mike Baird in exterminating legislation that provided any worthwhile protection for the species. At the same time, this ensured that any public citizen legal action was well-nigh impossible.

Her first action in winning the last election was to eradicate the Office of Environment and Heritage

The draft plan reveals yet another major problem has been identified, one that is not reported by the mainstream press:

An emerging disease that affects koala habitat is myrtle rust, a plant disease caused by the introduced fungal pathogen, arrived in Australia in 2010 and affects plant species in the family Myrtaceae (eucalypts, lillipillies, paperbarks and tea-trees) which dominate many Australian ecosystems. The disease leads to defoliation, loss of reproductive capacity and death; and seedlings are particularly vulnerable. The disease is naturalised along the east coast of Australia.

Myrtle rust, according to the Invasive Species Council, ‘slipped through national biosecurity borders... Climatic modelling suggesting it will spread much further’.

The Council indicates that the pathogen could fundamentally alter Australia’s ecology.

In their press release, the council indicates that a letter sent to former Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke by the Institute of Foresters of Australia clearly expresses this concern, warning that myrtle rust is a ‘major bio-security incursion and the consequences to our native flora and plant industries are unknown but potentially enormous’.

Myrtle rust is now an exponentially increasing environmental nightmare, with a very low priority in terms of addressing the damage caused by governments.

Climate change comments in the draft plan echo the new marketing language:

‘...heatwaves and bushfires, exacerbated by climate change.’

The plan completely ignores the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species and Climate Change report which identifies the koala as one of the ten most vulnerable species to climate change globally. 

This report details that:

‘Koalas are particularly vulnerable to the effects of elevated CO2 levels on plant nutritional quality... Koalas are experiencing malnutrition as eucalyptus leaves decline in nutrient richness.’

Lactating females are particularly vulnerable because the nutritional demands are higher:

If females are unable to produce joeys to replace koalas that die of old age, populations will dwindle and eventually disappear. 

 

Destruction and degradation of koala habitat is particularly prevalent in the coastal regions of Australia where urban development is rapidly encroaching on eucalyptus forests. In addition, habitat fragmentation limits koalas’ ability to disperse to suitable areas and can intensify breeding problems.

Disease, as usual, is described in medical technical terms which fail to describe the cause accurately. Chlamydia is a result of stress, caused by the loss of home range habitat. Stress depletes the immune system allowing the disease to erupt. Carers have described how moderately chlamydia-affected koalas recover when placed in a healthy habitat.

Koala populations in Victoria and South Australia are considered by the plan to be ‘stable or increasing’. Tell that to conservation organisations in both states. Neither the Victorian nor South Australian Governments have carried out any current population estimates ensuring no information on koala status.

Nevertheless, the draft plan has more weasel words for the ‘unlisted populations’:

The Australian Government acknowledges that to appropriately manage the listed koala, a national approach is required that considers the listed koala in the context of its relationship with unlisted koala populations in Victoria and South Australia. The implementation of the recovery plan will consider the management and populations status of koalas across Victoria and South Australia through cooperation and collaboration, national governance and monitoring. It is envisioned that all respective koala plans, strategies and plans will mutually inform conservation effort at a national scale.

Submissions close on 24 September 2021.  

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

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