Sunday, July 04, 2021

Koala Alert: Defending the Unburnt 6

 

Koala Joey

-Image by Sur Plus as far as I can tell

Before the fires

 

I was going to write about big cats today, but before I do I want to put out an urgent word about our very own koalas. Having lost 90% of their number over the last decade due to logging, habitat destruction and fragmentation, urban expansion and disease, koalas were already declared vulnerable in 2012. Since then their plight has become even worse. Koala habitats in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD) have been destroyed even faster since since 2012 as shown by a survey released in April. 

 

Between 1990 and 2016, 9.6 million hectares of vegetation were cleared. Koala habitat destruction in New South Wales increased by about 32%, and in Queensland by about 7%. According to two reports by science consultants Biolink, koala populations have decreased by half in Queensland and up to 61% in New South Wales since 2001. This was before the 2019 – 2020 bushfires which killed more than 1.5 billion animals including some 40 other threatened species.

 

After the fires

During the fires NSW lost 13 million hectares including 70 National parks and reserves -38% of the park system,  while the much smaller state of Victoria lost 1.5 million hectares mostly in the East and North East. In consequence Koalas along Australia's East Coast have lost around 80% of their habitat and a further 30% of their population. This has led to calls for their listing as endangered by the UN, something which wildlife organisations and scientists were calling for well before the fires.

While the Federal Government has announced the establishment of the Georges River National Park in August 2020 – important because it holds the only disease -free koala population, this is intended to occur over ten years and is less than half the size of the original proposal. As with repeated calls for the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, it promises much but does little. There’ll be studies, there’ll be funding, or at least promises thereof, and there’ll be protection at some distant time in the future, but in the meantime, the activities which cause the problem in the first place will continue unchecked and even intensify. 

Logging of native forests on public lands is set to increase. Until recently, codes of practice on private land were based on a vague “self -assessment” process protected by 'commercial in confidence agreements' and not accessible to public scrutiny and earlier this year there were heartbreaking images of koalas being killed as trees were being felled. Monitoring and enforcement of any agreements were lax. Now instead of moving toward greater protection for forests, the New South Wales state government plans to overturn existing protections and “cutting green tape.” This is from a letter in Independent Australia:

“As for private landholders, the new State environmental planning policy for koalas hands over the power to override councils and allow clearing of koala habitat on private land to Deputy Premier John Barilaro’s Ministry.  Logging may be allowed to override local environmental plans and the Minister for Planning will take over Councils’ rights to rezone rural land to an environmental zone.” 

Despite promising to protect Koala habitat in 2021, the most  recent scientific reports indicate that if nothing is done, koalas will be extinct by 2050. 

Urban development, mining and infrastructure projects also continue to take their toll and previous requirements to relocate koalas or substitute alternative lands can now be deferred to the end of a project. Where “trade -off” land has been purchased for land taken from koala habitat it is often of inferior quality and lacking the species diversity of the original plot. Of the 600 known species of eucalyptus, koalas eat only around 120 and will prefer only 4-6 types on a given site. 

In many places small community groups are locked in pitched David and Goliath battles against large corporations to save this bit of habitat or that. In Sydney for example, the Save Sydney’s Koalas group is up against Lendlease who are building 1700 dwellings at Mt. Gilead in Sydney’s southwest where 400 koala trees are at risk. Unfortunately, the pro -Koala group just lost in court. The added burden of 3400 additional cars estimated to be part of the new housing estate, will pose further risks for koalas driven out of their homes. Two were already killed by vehicles on one day this week. At the very least it should be mandatory for roads in such developments to have underpasses for wildlife. In a development of that size, what are a few drainpipes? And why is it that people move to semi -rural regions such as this, if not for the proximity to nature?

What to do?

Following publication of a detailed report by leading scientists into the status of koalas and other species after the fires, the World Wildlife Fund is now calling on the Australian Government to declare koalas endangered and immediately move to protect six unburned sections of forest on Australia’s east coast. See the full text here and sign the petition.

While this will give koalas a reprieve in the short -term, it does not address the cumulative threats faced by koalas or the long -term threat posed by climate change. Among their 53 recommendations is the establishment of a Great Koala National Park, which would enable koalas to move from one space to another as conditions change. It also calls for logging of native forests to cease immediately and for stricter policy measures, monitoring and enforcement of them on private lands.


While the state of Victoria has promised to create two new national parks in the state's north and west, it won’t do so until 2030 and only after the areas have been logged. As far as Climate Change is concerned, the Australian government is once again leading the charge backwards. Fourteen mining proposals involving fossil fuels have been approved since 2019. In 2019 the International Energy Agency said that worldwide the coal and gas industry grew by 4.6% for the second year running and was optimistic about its future. It certainly seems as if Australia is trying to fulfil that dismal vision. With banks now reluctant to loan on new coal and gas projects, the Australian Government has stepped in to lend $AU 175 million ($US 131) to the Olive Downs Coal Mine which is expected to last 79 years. 

Australia’s newly re-elected Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce is still pushing for more coal and gas, even though the country already subsidises them to the tune of $AU 1.8 billion a year and the cost of renewable energy has fallen to $70 per kW hour, compared to coal at $79 per kWh. 

One of the bright spots on the horizon is that another large open cut coal mine, the Shenhua Watermark Mine, has been refused permission to go ahead because of its effect on water supplies, koala habitat, agricultural land and indigenous cultural heritage, but at a cost of $100 million to the Australian taxpayer in compensation. Another is that even a small pro -coal community in Queensland is trying to protect its koalas. 

Yes, IUCN, please put our koalas on the endangered species list to ensure that they now get the attention they deserve. 

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If you want to lend your support to groups fighting for koala habitat try the following plus any of the community groups above and and any of  those such as wires who are still rescuing and rehabilitating koalas: 

The World Wildlife Fund

The Australian Environmental Defender’s Office


 

 

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