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No legal protection for Victorian and SA koala populations

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South Australia and Victoria are not giving koalas adequate legal protection by wildlife legislation (Image by Dan Jensen)

Governments in South Australia and Victoria have failed to provide adequate wildlife legislation in order to protect koala habitats, writes Sue Arnold.

KOALAS HAVE GENERATED a lot of words, appeals, strategies, plans and submissions focused on the looming crises facing the species. Millions of dollars have been donated to ensure their survival.

Governments have spent millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money on strategies and plans which have had provided no results other than ongoing regional extinctions.

IA has carried out an investigation into the outlook of koala conservation in all koala states. This report is focused on South Australian and Victorian koala populations, largely ignored by mainstream media as well as the Federal Government.

As a result of this investigation, it’s evident that not only is there a complete failure to protect any koala habitat anywhere in the country, but the lack of any legal protection has left the koala on a path to extinction.

South Australia and Victoria rely on modelling, outdated surveys, guesstimates and in both cases, the koala is not given any adequate legal protection by wildlife legislation.

Let’s start with South Australia. The Government’s blurb on the internet claims 114,000 koalas. A 2016 document entitled South Australian Koala Conservation and Management Strategy refers to the source of this estimate as based on a citizen science project conducted on one day, 28 November 2012.

According to the “Great Koala Count” one-day project, more than 1,500 sightings were recorded. As a result of this count, the Government declared the ‘population estimate of koalas in the Adelaide Hills and Mount Lofty Ranges was approximately 114,000’.

By 2019, according to South Australian media, the Mount Lofty population had increased to 150,000 and koalas were so numerous that females were targeted with injections of fertility control drugs.   

A commissioned Independent Review into South Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfire Season estimated between 40-50,000 koalas were lost. 

Whilst many thousands of koalas were incinerated on Kangaroo Island, local wildlife shelters report that fires took a terrible toll on koalas on the mainland. IA was unable to source any post-bushfire state surveys of koalas. 

According to the Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Plan, 64% of koala habitat was burnt.

The National Parks and Wildlife Act doesn’t mention koalas in any of its schedules. 

One of the provisions of the Act can only be described as astonishing:

‘Part 6 (2a) The Governor may, by regulation, amend Schedule 7, 8, 9 or 10 by deleting species of animals or plants from, or including species of animals or plants in, the Schedule.’

Any independent evaluation of the status of koalas in South Australia would have to conclude their status is unknown.

Moving on to Victoria, where the Government relies heavily on two documents for the management and conservation of koalas.

Victoria’s Wildlife Act 1975 had not been reviewed since 2004. In the 2004 document Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy, no population estimate is evident. However, in May 2020, the Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change announced a comprehensive review of the Wildlife Act.

An independent panel will examine:

  • whether the Act’s objectives and scope are appropriate, comprehensive and clear;
  • whether the Act establishes a best-practice regulatory framework for achieving its objectives;
  • whether the Act appropriately recognises and protects the rights and interests of Traditional Owners and Aboriginal Victorians around wildlife and their role in decision-making; and
  • the best way to encourage compliance with the Act, including whether offences and penalties under the Act are appropriate to punish and deter wildlife crime.

What is clear is that the Act is incapable of protecting Victoria’s wildlife, which are basically lumped into one package.

A critique by Environmental Justice Australia and Humane Society International sums up the state of play:

‘The Act is the product of incremental, ad hoc changes to laws governing both native and non-indigenous fauna over the past century. It has its origins in very old laws governing hunting, with concerns over conservation and care for native species built into the scheme since 1975. Generally, the law is outdated, not driven by clear policy or science and its administration is mired more in obscurity than good governance.’

In a media release, Environmental Justice senior lawyer Dr Bruce Lindsay said

‘Our wildlife is in the gunsights of rapidly accumulating extinction and climate crises. Our laws are hindering and enabling the problem, not confronting it or overcoming it. Generally, the Victorian Wildlife Act is outdated, not driven by clear policy or science and its administration is mired more in obscurity than good governance.’

The report details egregious recent incidents involving the illegal killing of protected native wildlife such as wedge-tailed eagles, koalas and wombats, and uproar over the inadequacies of the law and its penalties.

According to Dr Lindsay:

The law further sanctions the legal killing of tens of thousands of native animals every year. In 2019 alone, 3,441 Authorities to Control Wildlife (ATCWs) were issued authorising destruction or harm to a staggering 185,286 animals. This included 966 emus; 3,655 wombats; 3,152 ravens; 6,919 little corellas; 4,570 sulphur-crested cockatoos; 77,300 kangaroos (on top of a commercial quota); as well as 6,604 grey-headed flying foxes which are a threatened species.

The second document is entitled Modelling Koala Abundance Across Victoria, published by the Arthur Rylah Institute for Environmental Research and placed under the control of the Department of Sustainability and Environment in 2002, now the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).

The report claims 413,000 koalas in native forest and woodland and 47,000 koalas in eucalypt plantations.

According to the summary:

‘This study collated koala counts conducted over the last 15 years across Victoria. The data included 1,494 diurnal double-count surveys, 115 nocturnal double-count surveys and 414 single-count surveys. Double-counts are those with replicate, independent counts completed by two observers, with single-counts being counts completed by one or more observers in a single sweep.’

In its conclusions, the authors state:

‘This study relied on counts with various spatial biases and considerable methodological variation. This work was guided by the spatial projections of model uncertainty. Statewide or regional koala surveys using double standard count approaches would improve our ability to estimate trends in koala populations.’

Approximately 15,000 koalas were predicted to have been impacted by the fires in 2019-2020, a figure contradicted in the report’s conclusions with authors indicating that statewide and regional surveys:

‘...would be particularly useful in the wake of the significant wildfires... which have had an unknown impact on koala population sizes.’

As any modeller will acknowledge, models are only as good as the data fed in. The Rylah study uses counts which are not current, with no statewide, on-the-ground surveys of koalas undertaken since the bushfires or in the last 20 years according to the available records.

The downside of South Australian and Victorian out of date, questionable population estimates is that the Federal Government is highly unlikely to designate the koalas as an endangered species under the EPBC Act.

This is a direct outcome of the Common Assessment Method developed by Health Minister Greg Hunt, then Minister for the Environment in 2015. The CAM, as it is known, only allows for one national listing of a species.

Given the inflated estimates in South Australia and particularly Victoria, and the complete lack of any independent scientifically acceptable population surveys of numbers and habitat loss, the ongoing mythology of secure koala populations will continue ad nauseum.

It’s also highly unlikely that either the Victorian Labor Government or the South Australia Liberal Government will upgrade their wildlife legislation to provide for habitat protection.

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

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