Sussan Ley's largesse: Koalas failed to make the grade

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Environment Minister Sussan Ley announced addition funding for native animal bushfire recovery (Screenshot via YouTube)

While the Government has pledged further funding to bushfire recovery, a deeper look reveals that the plight of koalas has again been ignored, writes Sue Arnold.

LAST WEEK, Sussan Ley, Federal Minister for the Environment, announced in a media release that the ‘Morrison Government has taken its investment in bushfire recovery for native wildlife and habitat areas to more than $200 million’, indicating a further $50 million in addition to the original $150 million.  

According to the release, this latest financial response ‘will help secure the future of treasured native species from the koala to the Kangaroo Island dunnart and other species.

The bushfire tragedy which made headlines around the world delivered millions of dollars in donations for burned, injured, surviving koalas. Losing Australia’s iconic koala touched hearts everywhere. 

In December 2019, the minister acknowledged that around 8,000 koalas had died on the mid-north coast of NSW alone, killing over a third of the state’s population. Although this appalling loss was highlighted in the mainstream media, no effort was made to find out where the other two-thirds of koalas could be found. Or whether they were also torched. Or what the future might hold given the sheer extent of habitat loss.

In January, Ley convened a panel of experts to direct a wildlife and bushfire recovery response. The panel report contained the following advice:

‘Other species have a substantial portion of their range potentially affected by fires and require emergency intervention and strategic response to support their recovery. These include species like the smoky mouse, koala and giant burrowing frog.’

Understanding the dynamics of the population and the date of the last estimate would be crucial in establishing the worst-case scenario for remaining koalas, allowing a comprehensive, well-informed strategy to be initiated.

Unfortunately, there is actually no current population estimate for NSW koalas. The last one happened in 2006 based on citizen responses suggesting a statewide population between 1-10,000. In 2016, the NSW Chief Scientist Mary O’Kane in her independent inquiry into koalas estimated the population at 36,000. No information was made available where the colonies are located, when the estimate was undertaken, by whom as well as details of the methodology used. Essential information.  

IA’s research demonstrates that the NSW Chief Scientist’s optimistic population estimate was based on desktop studies using correction factors which effectively made any estimate guess-work.

What we do know is that population studies carried out in local government areas (LGAs) in recent years demonstrate a steady, rising decline of koalas as detailed in the Chief Scientist’s report, Campbelltown koalas being the major exception. 

The failure of the Federal Government to take the emergency steps recommended by Ley’s own expert panel is further highlighted by the koala round table meeting the minister organised in Canberra in February.

Requests for a transcript, which apparently exists, have disappeared down a convenient COVID-19 bureaucratic black hole.

At the round table, expert after expert together with NGOs, carers, bureaucrats from state and federal governments raised major concerns over the future survival of koalas and the importance of protecting remaining habitat. The audience learned the Federal Government would only allocate $3 million to acquire koala habitat in NSW and Queensland. Consultants advised that their research showed this funding would not achieve any useful acquisition as basically $3 million was a pittance.

In Ley’s latest effort to convince the public how much the Morrison Government cares for wildlife, she explains that:

‘The wildlife and habitat bushfire recovery response is further aided by a $94.6 million package to help support zoos and aquariums during the COVID-19 crisis.’

Exactly how zoos and aquariums will assist in wildlife and bushfire recovery is unknown, nor is there an explanation as to any relevance the COVID-19 crisis. A quick search of any role played by aquariums in wildlife and bushfire recovery on Google revealed no information.

Obviously, $94 million would go a long way towards acquiring sufficient habitat to ensure koalas surviving the fires were able to access permanent refuges. Given that koalas are an umbrella species for coastal forest ecosystems, protecting koalas ensures a host of biodiversity also survives.  

Neither the ALP nor any political party has asked Ley to explain how zoos and aquariums could spend nearly $100 million on wildlife recovery. Nor has the mainstream media.

The minister assures in her release that ‘we have listened to the experts from the Wildlife and Threatened Species Recovery Expert Panel’.

However, the accompanying release from the Federal Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, appears to contradict the minister.

The Bushfire Recovery Update subheaded ‘Recovery Guided by Experts’ and illustrated with a nice koala picture, states: 

‘A panel of experts is informing the government’s response, including priority emergency actions to support fire-impacted animals, plants and ecosystems and the medium- and long-term responses needed to support the recovery of our environment.’

The release indicates that the panel’s priorities and objectives are:

  • Prevent extinction and limit decline of species.
  • Reduce the immediate suffering of native animals directly impacted by the fires.
  • Maximise the chances for long term recovery of native species and communities.
  • Ensure learning and continual improvement is at the core of the response.

No mention of aquariums and zoos taking on the role of wildlife recovery. No mention of any koala actions.

The panel’s primary priority activity according to the document is protecting unburnt refuges in or near burnt areas.

However, in New South Wales where the Berejiklian Government’s mode of operation is to ignore community concerns, protests, communications and petitions, the logging of unburned forests which are the remaining primary habitat of koalas is continuing without hindrance. In fact, the logging continued during the bushfires. 

Nor is there any attempt by the Berjiklian Government to address the expert panel priority objectives. Or any smack on the knuckles from Canberra. Another load of recommendations by experts goes into the filing basket.

Funds allocated by the Federal Government deserve scrutiny.

For instance, $7 million has been given to Natural Resource Management (NRM) groups for emergency intervention.

However, the NRM website fails to indicate any capacity for emergency intervention in its terms of reference:

Regional NRM organisations adopt a range of approaches to building community capacity. They provide technical and other support to individual landholders, Landcare and other community groups and they use various approaches to facilitate greater community participation in the planning, investment and decision making of the regional NRM organisations.

A breakdown of the $7 million grant is provided.

For starters, $2.6 million went to 17 NRM regions for feral predator, pest and weed control. Feral pigs are being surveyed on Kangaroo Island and in southeast NSW, river and estuary habitats are being protected by erosion control using coir logs.

Aside from that, $4 million has been granted to 11 NRM regions for priority works including habitat protection. Sorry, folks, but the Threatened Species Commissioner refers to habitat protection ‘such as fencing’.

So far, $13 million has been granted to state and territory governments for on-ground emergency interventions and priority recovery activities. Unfortunately, no information is provided as to which governments or what interventions.

Any casual analysis of how federal funding for wildlife bushfire recovery is being spent demonstrates that the koala has failed to make the grade. An audit of the federal and state governments’ funding and grants focused on wildlife recovery is urgently needed.

Without mandatory powers, the expert panel is unable to upgrade the protection of any wildlife species impacted by the fires. The Threatened Species Commissioner has directed her focus at organisations with no demonstrable history of koala recovery or wildlife recovery expertise.

Indeed, the failure of Sussan Ley and Dr Box to address the primary objectives of the expert panel is a further indication of the Morrison Government’s dedication to wildlife eradication.

Habitat acquisition is a priority. Preventing logging in unburnt forests must take precedence by all relevant governments. Not only for koalas but for the survival of critical coastal ecosystems. 

Millions allocated by the Morrison Government should be closely examined for any sports rorts odours and recipients obliged to detail every grant dollar spent.

State governments, the recipients of the federal largesse, need to explain why they continue to breach the expert panel’s objectives and priorities. 

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

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