The Australian Senate inquiry into the status, health, and sustainability of the koala heard 60 submissions in its first hearing in Brisbane on May 3. There will be a further hearing in Canberra on May 19.
The Australian Koala Foundation wants the federal government to list the koala as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and to pass legislation that truly protects the creatures’ habitat.
In her submission to the inquiry, the foundation’s CEO Deborah Tabart said the AKF wanted the committee to get to the root cause of the koalas’ plight. “Very simply, if koala trees were not destroyed, koalas would not suffer starvation, they would not be ripped apart by dogs, killed by motor vehicles and the disease rates would be less. Protection of the 50 tree species in our submission is imperative if the koala is to survive and thrive.”
She said the AKF maintained and believed strongly that there were no more than 85,000 and more likely closer to 45,000 koalas left in Australia.
The current need was not for more research “which sometimes seeks to delay and confuse”, she added. Koalas needed legislative protection at federal level. “Research and other actions can then follow. This simple act of listing the koala would ensure that all landholders, when wanting to change or develop their land practices, would be under strict and powerful guidelines to minimize damage to koala habitat.”
Tabart said the AKF made it clear to the senators that science had let the koala down. “We, the AKF, are tired of having to sell T-shirts to fund this valuable work.”
The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, is a driving force in the battle to protect the koala. He told the inquiry there had been “a catastrophic drop” in the number of koalas in Australia. The koala population was in “precipitous, perhaps terminal decline”, he said.
Senator Brown says there has been an up to 95 per cent crash in the koala population in Queensland since the mid-1990s. “The investment in tackling koala diseases is pathetic. It’s a matter of national shame,” he told reporters.
“It’s the national icon, but there are fewer koalas left in Australia now than there were in the slaughter years in the 1920s, and the numbers are crashing. It is the Australian government’s job to protect the koala.”
Senator Brown said he hoped the senate committee hearings would lead to a national plan of action to save the koala.
At the hearing in Canberra, representatives of the forestry and mining industries will be given the opportunity to express their points of view. The AKF is urging the public to attend in large numbers, as they did in Brisbane.
Koalas primarily eat leaves from eucalyptus trees, but these trees are being continuously cut down. Since white settlement began in Australia, roughly 80 percent of koala habitat has been destroyed; the remainder is mostly on privately owned land and almost none of it is protected.
Coal mining, forestry, and general urban development are all contributing to a reduction in the number of koalas living in the wild and about 4,000 koalas are killed by dogs and cars each year. Research carried out at Sydney University in 2008 showed that rising CO₂ levels in the atmosphere could further threaten the creatures by sapping nutrients from gum leaves and making them more toxic.
When European settlers first arrived in Australia, there were 10 million koalas in the wild.
A new online mapping portal is now available on the AKF website; it will help pinpoint koala habitats and provide accurate figures. AFK launched the portal recently in collaboration with the mapping and location experts Esri Australia. Using the portal, people can enter information about koala sightings and habitat quality.
“Esri Australia has taken our existing maps and extensive information database and transformed them into a web tool that enables the community to get involved by telling us what is happening on the ground,” Tabart said.