Opinion/Comment, Science/Environment

Does Australia really care about Koalas?

Everyone loves a koala, don’t they?

What’s not to like? A small, inoffensive, leaf-eating, cute marsupial that oozes calm charm!

By Kevin Evans

For decades captive koalas have been patted and mauled by every visiting dignitary from Putin to Obama and even the odd Queen. Koalas are without doubt our international animal megastars. When it suits us, that is.

A Koala with chlamydia

It’s a sad fact that over the same period Vladimir Putin has wielded power in Russia, wild koala populations have declined by nearly 50 per cent in 20 years.

Clearly Australia cares a bit, but not enough when it comes to securing the future of our diplomatic feel-good prop.

At our place, slap bang in the Bellingen Shire’s Koala Plan of Management KPOM) zone, we, like many other private landowners have planted koala-appropriate trees to help in a small but meaningful way. But until recently we hadn’t seen or heard a koala – how frustrating!

That all changed when I received a message from a neighbour informing me that a koala was sitting low down in a tree nearby. So off I trekked up Roses Road, hopeful and excited at the prospect of seeing a wild koala.

And there it was, not even 10 metres away, resting in a Camphor Laurel sapling. My elation was short-lived. On closer inspection this little juvenile koala wasn’t healthy. Zooming in on her teddy bear face with my camera, I could see the telltale signs of chlamydia. Her red, swollen, almost closed weeping eyes, a shock to see firsthand. This made me angry and frustrated. This horrific disease inflicts not only pain and suffering to so many koalas, it also cruelly renders its victims infertile, further deepening their survival challenge as a species.

Habitat loss isolates and stresses fragmented koala populations. Diseases like chlamydia flourish in these conditions. We have known this for years, yet we have effective strategies that are overlooked and gathering dust. Local conservationists and environment groups feel like a broken record bleating on about the need to protect and connect core koala habitat within and between national parks just like the proposed Great Koala National Park would do on the Mid North Coast.

With a local koala expert and a fit tree-climbing teenager at hand, we managed to quickly catch our sick koala and off it went to a dedicated wildlife veterinarian for expert care. I found out later that this was the third sick koala Wires have picked up on the same road in as many months.

I realise a response to the koala crisis is complex, but there are solutions – they just lack a coherent and funded implementation plan by three levels of government

A whole-of-government approach to protect koalas as marketed by the NSW government could be effective with the right strategy, but Gladys means just her government and her strategy is flawed.

For example the Bellingen Shire has the largest KPOM in NSW but recent state government funding announcements largely ignored our region ensuring local conservation efforts are limited. Surely a more effective whole of government response to the koala crisis requires would see all three levels of government and the community working together?

Related: Koala ‘reserves’ don’t match where the key colonies are

NSW chooses timber over koalas

Without a national commitment, credible scientists tell us koala will be long gone in NSW by 2055. Sadly,  even though koala are listed as ‘vulnerable to extinction’ we may be waiting a while for help as the Australian government’s previous koala conservation plan expired years ago and clearly failed in its primary mission! So after years of ‘consultation’, half a dozen different environment ministers and zero cooperation or funding for even inadequate state government efforts, the feds have overseen a deepening koala crisis. No strategy, no cooperation, no funding, no clue.

An effective whole of government strategy must include law reform and policies to secure the future of koalas. It makes good sense, right?

Well, reform we got and backward we went in addressing the koala conundrum? The much-heralded NSW biodiversity conservation laws commenced in 2017 and two years on they clearly do not address – and may even exacerbate – the problems of declining koala populations. If that wasn’t enough to stymie any hope of avoiding the extinction of NSW koalas, the state and federal Coalition governments recently signed off on new regional forest agreements that allow industrial scale clearing of native forest without even checking to see if koala or other threatened species live there first. The cumulative impacts of policies that enable land clearing, unsustainable forestry, urban development, habitat fragmentation and inaction on climate change conspire to be a gold medal winning approach to guaranteeing koala extinction, not the proactive response desperately needed to protect them. 

Come on Australia, we can and must do better when it comes to protecting nature. With help from our local council, funding from government agencies and support from our great community we could achieve so much more to help us coexist with and not further compromise our unique natural environment.

PS. I am looking forward to the day our young koala can be healthy enough to be returned once again to the Promised Land.

Kevin Evans – Gleniffer, Coffs Coast

Kevin is a Former CEO of the National Parks Association of NSW

First published in The Bellingen Courier-Sun. 28 Janauary 2019

See: https://www.bellingencourier.com.au/story/5872447/does-australia-really-care-about-koalas/?cs=483

Editors note (4-3-19): *The Federal Government’s Threatened Species Scientific Committee assessed that, in Queensland and NSW, koalas went from 326,400 in 1990 to 188,000 in 2010, a 42% decline in two decades.

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