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NSW Government clueless about koala protection

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NSW Environment Minister Penny Sharpe needs to step up in order to prevent the extinction of koalas (Screenshots via YouTube - edited)

The NSW Minns Government has been continually ignorant towards the survival of koalas and the protection of their habitat, writes Sue Arnold.

 

NSW ENVIRONMENT MINISTER Penny Sharpe must believe that scientists, NGOs and organisations that have fought for years to save the state’s remaining koalas are idiotic.

Sharpe’s latest effort to convince an increasingly cynical public that the Minns Labor Government gives a hoot about koalas is yet another koala summit. With an invitation for the public to “have a say”... by email.

On Friday 22 March, Taronga Zoo will host the summit. Strictly invitation only, as usual. Keeps the problems out of harm’s way.

According to the blurb:

'The summit will bring together key knowledge holders from across New South Wales to provide advice about the effectiveness of current conservation activities and make recommendations for future priorities.'

Except there are no current realistic conservation measures. All previous summits, workshops, parliamentary inquiries and recommendations are stuffed in the political closet. There are probably enough koala research papers, government inquiries, grants, subsidies and policies to be accommodated in a small museum.

The solution is simple. No summits are needed. Protecting habitat has been the primary recommendation since the first NSW koala summit in 1988.

Koalas need habitat, protected permanently from forestry, mining, infrastructure and urbanisation projects. Everyone involved with wildlife knows this simple fact.  

Without shelter, food resources, and available and expanding habitat for dispersing young, no species of wildlife will survive. Koalas are faithful to their habitats.

A quick search of the Government’s latest koala summit discussion paper finds nothing on forestry, logging or the disastrous logging approval or the Coastal Integrated Forestry Operations Approval (CIFOA), which is jointly under the control of Sharpe and the Minister for Agriculture, Tara Moriarty.

Industrial logging of the state’s remaining native forests is going ahead full steam as critically important koala populations are destroyed with full Government approval.

Signed in 2018, the CIFOA has completely failed to protect koalas and their habitat. Habitat trees are being bulldozed with monotonous regularity in the face of massive growing protests from across a broad community. 

CIFOA contains no provisions or conditions to deal with bushfires, climate change, drought or rampant die-offs of some eucalypt species. The only way conditions can be changed is by joint approval from Sharpe and Moriarty. No changes reflecting the urgency of protecting koalas in the state’s native forests with a moratorium on habitat have been made.

The forestry industry has been well protected by both L-NP and Labor governments in NSW.

The following NSW Acts provide the NSW Forestry Corporation with a defence for non-compliance with conditions preventing fauna damage or mortality:

Every piece of legislation designed to protect endangered forest fauna is rendered useless by Forestry Corporation's defence provisions.  

As for the promised Great Koala National Park (GKNP)? Another Labor sell-out as the logging industry drives its deadly juggernaut through koala habitat in the proposed park. In response to enormous community concern, Sharpe declared late last year that several koala hubs would be protected in the proposed park.

The koala hubs were declared based on a 2000 assessment. No assessment has been made as a result of the Black Summer fires.

Koalas need corridors and connectivity, and are faithful to their habitats. Adding a few protected koala hubs based on out-of-date information was a sop to public concern. The entire forestry industry needs to be subject to stringent publicly challengeable legislation which both ministers refuse to allow. Native forest logging must be protected at all costs.

Sharpe claimed pre-election promises by Labor never included a ban on logging in the GKNP. Yet a thorough search of press releases, statements and policy promises fails to reveal any indication that, if elected, the Labor Government would continue to log in the proposed park. A concerned public assumed a Minns Government would immediately create the park given the dire state of koala populations in NSW.

It is no exaggeration to say that many people voted for Labor based on the promise of the park.   

Sharpe’s koala hub press release says:

“The Government commits to working closely with the industry to develop a blueprint for the future timber sector that accommodates both the park and the production of timber products.”

Priorities are clearly set out in this statement. Forestry first — economic and social assessments, Indigenous organisations and koalas a distant last.

It’s highly unlikely the park will be created until the last year of the Labor Government’s term in office, effectively ensuring ongoing logging will trash the park leaving little value for koala survival.

Sharpe’s tactics now are to engage “stakeholders” in endless discussions, set up useless koala summits and push the line that the Government wants to secure the future of the koala. Many voters wonder if this betrayal is the cost of power and position.

How many koalas are left in NSW? No one knows. In 2008, the NSW Koala Recovery Plan estimated the state’s population at between 1,000-10,000.  

The Federal Government’s most current estimate of koalas in NSW, according to the Species Profile and Threats Database, was 21,000 in 2010. However, it is biologically impossible for koalas to have doubled their numbers in the space of two years. 

The 2010 estimate has since disappeared from the Federal Government’s database. No population estimates for NSW, Queensland, Victoria and South Australia or any national population assessments are now available — a curious censorship by the Federal Government.

Current population estimates fluctuate wildly and are based on desktop studies, wildly inflated figures and scientifically unreliable methodology.

In 2016, the NSW chief scientist’s “Independent” Review into the Decline of Koala Populations came up with a remarkable 36,000 koalas — an astonishing biological event, claiming a population growth of 15,000 koalas in six years, assuming the 2010 figure of 21,000 as the baseline.

Wild koalas live approximately eight to 10 years, or 15 or 18, depending on which source figures come from. Females are sexually mature at approximately two years of age and males at three years. According to research, a female koala gives birth about seven times in her lifespan.

Geographic location, availability of food resources, habitat loss and climate impacts all have big impacts on the lifespan of koalas.

At a parliamentary portfolio committee hearing in March 2021, prior to Labor’s election, Sharpe asked L-NP Minister for the Environment Matt Kean:

On 26 July 2020, you announced your goal to double the population of koalas by 2050 and you stated that you want at least another 20,000 koalas by then. Given the recent bushfires and obviously what we know about koalas, which is that 90 per cent of their populations are in decline and there is speculation there could be fewer than 20,000 left in New South Wales, what is the science behind the ability to double that by another 20,000?

In light of her knowledge, Minister Sharpe needs to explain how koalas will continue to survive with a 90 per cent decline in populations, with fewer than 20,000 left and logging continuing in the proposed park and native forest compartments with koalas.

Sharpe’s estimate in the 2021 hearing would represent a 16,000 koala loss in five years, compared to the chief scientist’s estimate of 36,000 in 2016.

In citing these conflicting estimates, the figures provide glaring evidence of a Government failing to operate from any reliable baseline.

Ongoing approval of industrial logging, mining projects, infrastructure development, urbanisation and land clearing without any real knowledge of the status of koalas is grossly irresponsible.

The only way koalas can be assured of any chance of survival in NSW is for habitats to be permanently protected from all threats and for the immediate creation of the Great Koala National Park. 

Fat chance of this happening under either the NSW or Federal Labor Governments.

If a final nail is needed, in July 2023, Sharpe revoked funding of a promised $6 million four-year grant to Byron Bay Wildlife Hospital, the only all-species wildlife hospital in NSW outside of Taronga Wildlife Hospitals.

The grant was revoked one week before it was due to commence.

Right now, koalas must feel the rug’s been pulled from under them as well.

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

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