Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke announced today that the iconic creatures will be listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory.
Campaigners for koala protection say Burke has not gone far enough, and koalas should be listed as an endangered species throughout the country.
Developers in the three listed areas will now have to take koalas into account when making building applications. They will need to produce an environmental impact assessment showing that their development will meet federal government standards and prove that it will not negatively impact on koalas.
Burke said that, over the past 20 years, koala numbers had dropped by 40 per cent in Queensland and by a third in New South Wales. “Their populations are under serious threat from habitat loss and urban expansion, as well as vehicle strikes, dog attacks, and disease.”
He said the government had committed $300,000 of new funding to learn more about koala habitat.
Burke defended his decision not to make the listing countrywide, arguing that there are declines in koala populations in some areas, but large, stable or even increasing populations in others. Wildlife campaigners challenge this argument, saying koalas are endangered throughout Australia.
The Australian Koala Foundation gave Burke’s announcement a cautious welcome, saying it was a good step in the right direction.
However, the foundation’s chief executive Deborah Tabart said there was good scientific evidence that koalas in Victoria had the same decline curve as those in other parts of the country.
“We are shocked and saddened that the koalas in Victoria have been left unprotected. This is a battle that is still to be fought. I have a feeling the koala still has a long journey to make before it can be completely safe.”
Green party leader Christine Milne also welcomed the listing, but said it would have been sensible to extend it throughout the country to wherever there is koala habitat. “If Australians want to keep the koala we have to look after its habitat.”
A Wilderness Society spokeswoman said the listing was a welcome first step to greater protection of koalas, but there was concern about declining numbers in Victoria’s Strzelecki Ranges, in South Gippsland, where logging is occurring.
In the Pilliga Forest of northwest New South Wales, three-quarters of the koala population has been wiped out since 2000.
“We now need to see koala recovery plans promptly enacted to reverse the serious decline in their numbers and actually remove key threats,” Hogan said.
“This ‘vulnerable’ listing needs to be more than a government label, we need to see action taken and tough decisions made to reverse koala habitat destruction.”
Long-time defender of koalas Wanda Grabowski, who is secretary and education officer for the non-profit group, Koala Action Pine Rivers (KAPR), and was an expert witness at last year’s senate inquiry into the status, health, and sustainability of the koala, also says Victoria and South Australia should have been included in the listing.
“KAPR believes that the federal legislation must protect koalas across their natural range, which includes Victoria and South Australia. All states are experiencing an escalating decline in koala numbers.
“The evidence in Queensland and New South Wales is indisputable. However, lack of surveying and a focus on sterilisation and contraception in Victoria and South Australia has meant insufficient evidence for a decline is readily available.
“Carers and rescuers in those states are fully aware of the problems facing koalas in their locations, but both state and federal governments have ignored emerging problems.
“What is required to reduce the decline is complex. Essential to the entire process is the need to stop clearing bushland in urban and peri-urban areas, and to halt the fragmentation of remaining habitat.”
Landscape ecologist at the University of Queensland Clive McAlpine, who is a spokesman for the Koala Research Network and also gave evidence at the senate inquiry, said Burke’s announcement was timely.
“A lot of researchers and koala carers have been fighting for this decision for the past decade. I think it’s a good start.”
McAlpine points to the decline in koala populations in southeastern Queensland. “In 1996, when surveys were done in the koala coast area, the population was about 6,700; it’s declined to about 2,000 over a period of 15 years.
“The koala population in southeast Queensland is still very much at risk and it’s going to take a lot to turn it around; this government decision will help do that, but we need good planning; we need good strategies to try and conserve these populations.”
Drought, bushfires, and disease are causing koala deaths, and thousands of koalas are killed each year when they are hit by vehicles or attacked by dogs. 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.
Supervisor at the koala hospital in Port Macquarie, New South Wales, Cheyne Flanagan, said the listing was better than nothing.
“Koalas have been listed as vulnerable under New South Wales legislation for some time and it really hasn’t done much to protect them.
“It’s highly unlikely that it will stop development; it will just mean that the developers have a few more hurdles to jump. In some cases it will restrict them somewhat, and it may even prevent some projects.”
Flanagan also points to the serious reduction in koala habitat in Victoria. There is nowhere for animals to disperse, she says.
“Victorian wildlife personnel have stated (with photographic evidence) that many of the translocated animals from Raymond Island have been found dead, could not be located at all or are in care in wildlife shelters having been found in debilitated states at the release sites.”
Burke announced the new koala listing after receiving a recommendation from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee, which conducted a three-year assessment.
The Australian Koala Foundation says that when European settlers first arrived in Australia there were 10 million koalas in the wild. It is hard to say how many koalas remain. There is little doubt that there are a few hundred thousand at most, and the senate inquiry heard that there are probably between 50,000 and 100,000.
Tabart said many questions remained, such as “Will the new listing override existing projects that are destined to diminish koala habitats?”.
She said she was also concerned that a recovery plan for the koala at federal level has not been announced.
The Wilderness Society points to the rapid and aggressive coal seam gas and coal mining expansion that is destroying large swathes of koala habitat in the Pilliga Forest.
“The Pilliga Forest is covered by a proposal for the largest coal seam gas field in New South Wales, whilst koalas in Leard State Forest are confronted by three enormous open-cut coal mines.
“The spread of mines and gas wells, tree kills from coal seam gas spills, and increased vehicles through the Pilliga Forest will most likely put extra strain on these already declining koala populations.”
It seems extremely unlikely that any projects already underway will be halted, and mining companies and developers are notoriously good at finding ways around restrictions.
It remains to be seen if the government really has the will to make difficult decisons that favour koalas over financial interests.
Already, the Queensland premier Campbell Newman is complaining that the new listing will create lots of “green tape”, delay, and obstruction for developers.