Australia

Koalas still waiting

Australia’s Federal Environment Minister, Tony Burke, has postponed until February 17, 2012, his decision about whether or not the koala should be listed as a threatened species.

He said he wanted time to consider new information and seek further advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC).

The delay is extremely disappointing for those who want an urgent listing to protect the much-loved animal.

The Australian Koala Foundation’s chief executive officer, Deborah Tabart, said it was no coincidence that the annoncement was made without fanfare on the day of the Melbourne Cup horse race. “I imagine Minister Burke was hoping the Australian people and media would be more interested in the Cup.”

Tabart predicts that Burke will decide to list the koala as conservation dependent under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act. “This sounds great, but means nothing, and puts us back where we started with Minister Garrett nearly two years ago.”

Tabart expects a workshop of some sort will be held to evaluate the numbers of koalas in Australia. “It would be preferable if they would accept and acknowledge AKF’s assessment and years of work.”

She also expects the TSSC to say it has not had enough time to evaluate the problem and needs more money for research, “which could take years”.

“Worst of all,” Tabart says, “I expect the minister to announce the protection or listing of a small group of koalas. He would be making it look like all is well, but we would still not have the vital national listing.”

The AKF told the recent senate inquiry into the status, health, and sustainability of the koala that it believed there were between 43,515 and 84,615 koalas left in the wild. When European settlers first arrived in Australia, there were 10 million.

Since then, about 80 percent of koala habitat has been destroyed; the remainder is mostly on privately owned land and almost none of it is protected. Koalas primarily eat leaves from eucalyptus trees, but these trees are being continuously cut down.

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.

Writing in the Courier-Mail, published in Brisbane, Mike O’Connor said: “The latest procrastination is yet another example of the peculiar unwillingness of the government to come to the aid of our most dearly held national symbol.” He added: “The continued refusal of the federal government to take decisive action on the koala question defies belief.”

Defenders of the koala believe the creature is being sacrificed to appease property developers and logging and mining companies.

Tabart says she has completely lost faith in the political process. “Even after thousands of dollars of tax payers’ funds have been spent on the senate report, the minister is actually not listening. He is choosing the bits out of the report that will allow business as usual. “We should all be outraged and we are.”

In their report, released in September, the senators said the senate committee was not qualified to determine whether or not the koala should be listed as threatened, but was deeply concerned about the sustainability of Australia’s koala population.

The committee made 19 specific recommendations including the recommendation that the Australian government should finance “a properly designed, funded, and implemented national koala monitoring and evaluation programme”.

The leader of the Australian Greens, Senator Bob Brown, said: “The inquiry heard from carers, scientists and advocates across the country and their message was consistent and urgent: koala numbers everywhere, except the introduced populations in Victoria and South Australia, are in freefall.”

In September 2010, the scientific committee advised then Federal Environment Minister not to list the koala because of insufficient data.

In addition to the senate inquiry findings, other new information has become available in the year since the committee’s recommendation.

This includes evidence of more significant population declines than previously identified and more severe threats to the national koala population than those considered by the committee, particularly in the koala’s northern range (Queensland and New South Wales).

It is highly ironic that in the United States, the Fish and Wildlife Service lists the koala as a threatened species.