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Sussan Ley and the Government are still the biggest threat to koalas

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Devastating losses have occurred to our koala population from the bushfires, yet the Government isn't doing enough to preserve them and their habitat, writes Sue Arnold.

HAVE GOVERNMENTS seen the light? Will there be a longed-for change in direction and policy ensuring the survival of Australia’s iconic biodiversity?

Millions and millions of dollars have been poured into wildlife shelters and conservation organisations. The global response to Australia’s bushfires is nothing short of extraordinary and the concern over koalas has been a dominant feature and raison d’être for donations. 

An examination of State and Federal Government responses to the devastating bushfires, drought and their relationship to impacts from climate change demonstrate there’s no change in priorities.

Growth at any cost continues to be the mantra. Governments continue to ignore reality.

Last week, the Palaszczuk Government held one of its invitation-only discussions on their latest draft koala strategy. Invitees were requested to sit at a long table with smartphones in hand, responding to questions on a screen by ticking responses provided by bureaucrats in the Department of Environment and Science.   

Only two NGOs were present together with various consultants for developers and a couple of academics.

An Australians for Animals Inc representative asked why the Government was not putting the draft on hold, declaring a moratorium on all projects impacting remaining koala habitat until such time as the extent of damage by bushfires and drought is known.  

The plan for SEQ is for approximately 75,000 new residents each year. The region’s population will grow from 3.5 million to 5.3 million over the next 25 years. 30,000 new residences annually are anticipated, with one million new jobs.  

This level of growth ensures there will be no koalas left in SEQ in spite of the grandiose statements by Palaszczuk that her government is reserving 300,000 hectares of core koala habitat.

In fact, the koala habitat mapping in the strategy is a mess. The planning regulations which must be drastically changed to ensure local councils (like the Gold Coast City Council) can tear up prime koala habitat for development are not available. 

It rapidly became evident the meeting was another “tick the box” exercise. In fact, the Queensland Government’s koala strategy is in plain sight. A no-win situation whatever the outcome.

Either the strategy will be so watered down as to be another useless document supported by Parliament, or the finalisation will be delayed by conflict and endless debate. Meantime, developers have no constraints.

A Koala Advisory Council set up by the Government in December 2018 was provided with the draft strategy in July. No explanation has been given as to the ongoing delay in releasing to the public.   

September minutes of the KAC have been withheld for four months “to give Council members time to agree the minutes are correct,” according to a senior DES bureaucrat.

NSW continues its policies of development at any cost, no matter if an estimated 8,000 koalas died in the mid-north coast fires (noting the death toll is always confined to this area in the mainstream media and politicians’ handouts).  

Satellite imagery confirms that one-quarter of koala habitat has been torched, yet logging continues unabated in unburnt primary koala habitat in north coast forests. Efforts by many to have a moratorium on forestry operations declared, at least until the extent of damage is assessed, are ignored by government.

A Lendlease major urbanisation project in southwest Sydney at Mt Gilead which will have significant irreversible impacts on arguably the last large healthy population of koalas left in the state continues to be supported by government.

The Chinese owned Shenhua Watermark coal mine in the Liverpool Plains approval was modified by the Government in December 2018, requiring translocation of koalas. Designated as a state-significant development, the mine is due to begin operations in June. Yet the Gunnedah koala population, once known as the state’s koala capital, is critically important to the survival of the species.

The final death toll of koalas in NSW is unknown and likely to remain an estimate at best. In 2007-08, the last population estimate put the number at between 1,000-10,000. In 2012, the Federal Government’s species database estimated the population at 21,000. A study into the decline of koalas in NSW by the Chief Scientist in December 2016 estimated 36,000.  However, the studies cited in the report relied on highly questionable methodology.

More recently, former Office of Environment and Heritage bureaucrats advised that population estimates would no longer be conducted, the department relying on densities identified in mapped habitats.

In Victoria, the State Government’s timber agency has allowed logging to continue in Victorian forests as catastrophic fires ravage native animal populations. Vital habitat for threatened species such as the greater glider and the Leadbeater’s possum will continue to be lost.

According to The Age, a leaked Federal Government report warned that 34 per cent of lowland forests had gone up in flames.

Justification for the failure to protect remaining forests?

‘Pre-existing contracts require VicForests to chop down a certain number of trees to supply a combined 500,000 cubic meters of pulp to Australian Paper, which makes Reflex paper and employs more than 1,000 Victorians.’

South Australia is a basket case with a plan to cull koalas on Kangaroo Island potentially delayed as the intense bushfires appear to have done the job.

However, as South Australian and Victorian koalas are not listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, legal protection for the species is almost non-existent.   

Which brings us to the latest effort by the Federal Minister for the Environment, Sussan Ley.

On 14 January, Ley announced a $50 million emergency wildlife and habitat recovery package which included $1 million each for Taronga Zoo, Zoos South Australia and Zoos Victoria:

‘...for the treatment of injured animals and the establishment of insurance populations as identified by the Expert Panel led by Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box.’

On Sussan Ley’s Facebook page, she advises that:

First meeting of the Expert Panel for Bushfire Wildlife and Habitat Recovery, chaired by Dr Sally Box Threatened Species Commissioner.

 

This group will advise me how we achieve urgent and longer term actions and interventions to support the environment during and after the fires. Every bird, insect, amphibian, fish and marsupial matters as we rescue, rebuild and restore following this ecological tragedy.

Strong environmental legislation might be a better start along with policies to deal with climate change.

On 15 January, a further press release advised that an expert panel of ecologists, conservation biologists and other scientists would:

  • advise the Minister for the Environment on further critical interventions required to support the immediate survival of affected animals, plants and ecological communities and to control pests and weeds;
  • assess and map the scale of the impacts of the bushfires on our environment and prioritise recovery efforts, which will inform development of a strategy for building populations of native plants and animals back up again and ensuring their resilience into the future; and
  • include Dr Sally Box (Threatened Species Commissioner), Professor Sarah Legge (ANU), John Woinarski (Charles Darwin University), Dr Stephen van Leeuwen (Indigenous Advisory Committee), Dr Libby Rumpff (University of Melbourne), Associate Professor Dale Nimmo (Charles Sturt University),  Dr Jenny Gray (Zoos Victoria) and Dr Dan Metcalfe (CSIRO). Additional members will be appointed as required.

And from a final media statement:  

‘The impacts of these fires on our native species is heartbreaking but there is already a real sense of hope about what we can achieve by working together.’

No mention is made in the media releases of an earlier statement that some koalas may need to be upgraded to endangered on the EPBC list of protected species. That may be because not one single expert on Ley’s panel is a koala scientist.

At the Queensland Government meeting, the DES bureaucrat asked the audience an essential question:

“What do you think is the major threat to koalas?”

“Politicians,” replied the Australians for Animals Inc representative.

The record speaks for itself.

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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