Koala conference hears of new threats to iconic species

The 2013 National Koala Conference – “Their Future is in our Hands” – started today (Friday) in Port Macquarie in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales.

Speakers painted a disturbing picture of inaction on the part of many local authorities and the national government in the face of the threats to koala survival.

Carers and campaigners urged immediate and collaborative action to save Australia’s iconic creature. Scientists spoke of the work being done to try and treat the disease chlamydia, which is killing thousands of koalas, and carers spoke about rescuing injured animals and translocating koalas that are being pushed out of their traditional habitat by urban development.

Greens MP Cate Faehrmann spoke of plans to clear a large swathe of the Leard state forest in northern New South Wales for three coal mines.

Faehrmann, who sits on the New South Wales’ Legislative Council and is a Senate candidate for New South Wales in the 2013 federal election, accused Australian governments of abandoning the koala. “And it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any better,” she said.

Faehrmann fears that if a new coalition government is voted in in the September elections, that government may hand approval powers back to individual states and even scrap the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act altogether.

The Act provides a legal framework to protect and manage nationally and internationally important flora and fauna, ecological communities, and heritage places.

It was a “crying shame”, Faehrmann said, that those involved in mining, the forest industry, land clearing, and planning have not been willing partners to recovery of the koala population. “We know that by protecting habitat for the koala, we are protecting the habitat of hundreds of other species too.

“How much of our heritage do we need to lose? Fragmentation of these habitats makes koalas more vulnerable to risks like cars, dogs, bushfires, and disease and this fragmentation and loss of habitat increases the risk to all of the other species as well.”

The MP spoke of plans to clear a large swathe of the Leard state forest in northern New South Wales for three new or expanding open-cut coal mines. “Five thousand hectares of woodland would be cleared and this includes 550 hectares of critically endangered box gum woodland. This is a critical habitat for koalas as well as a heap of other threatened and vulnerable species.”

Faehrmann said the mining project would lead to the extinction of the koala population in the Leard forest. “There is nowhere else for them to go.”

The three mines, she said, would together produce 18,000 tonnes of dangerous coal dust. “The coal coming out of the three mines will be akin to adding a whole new country to the world’s annual emission outputs each and every year for thirty years.

“Mining this coal alone will produce enough carbon dioxide to rival New Zealand’s or Singapore’s total CO2 output in 2008. It’s about 30 million tonnes per annum.”

Faehrmann also spoke about the clearfelling of forest to feed the “insatiable export pulp and paper industry” and illegal logging in national parks.

She said koala numbers in New South Wales were already in rapid decline, having fallen from about 31,400 in 1999 to about 21,000 in 2010.

When European settlers first arrived in Australia, there were 10 million koalas in the wild. There are now a few hundred thousand at most and a senate inquiry held in 2011 was told that there are probably between 50,000 and 100,000.

Disease, drought, and bushfires are main causes of koala deaths, and thousands of them are killed each year when they are hit by vehicles or attacked by dogs. In addition to chlamydial disease, there is a retrovirus that is now rampant in koala populations.

Over the past 20 years, koala numbers have dropped by 40 per cent in Queensland and by a third in New South Wales. In the Pilliga Forest of northwest New South Wales, three-quarters of the koala population has been wiped out since 2000.

In May 2012, Australia’s federal environment minister Tony Burke announced that koalas would be listed as a vulnerable species in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory. Campaigners for koala protection say the government didn’t go far enough, and that koalas should be listed as an endangered species throughout the country.

At today’s conference session, Sue Brookhouse from the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), Coonabarabran, talked about the impact of the Warrumbungle fires in New South Wales in January 2013.

Brookhouse had delegates in tears as she told of fires that were fierce enough to split rocks apart and devastated 53,000 hectares of land, including 90 percent of the Warrumbungle National Park. She told how drought had already dramatically reduced koala numbers even before the fire.

“We used to have so many koalas that you literally tripped over them,” she said. “During the drought they were dropping out of the trees because there was no water in the eucalyptus leaves or in the creeks. Their numbers were already sparse before the fire.” There is now only one koala in what remains of the park.

Meghan Halverson, president of the newly formed group Queensland Koala Crusaders, also gave a moving presentation, which included horrific images of dead and injured koalas. “My heart aches and breaks every time I hear of the death of a koala,” Halverson said. “We need to be a united voice for the koala. If we don’t band together, we are going to end up with an empty Australia. We need to just keep asking ‘What’s best for the koala?’”.

A positive note was struck by Ruth Lewis, from the Ipswich Koala Protection Society (IKPS), who told how, in 2010, local campaigners had succeeded in getting a planned freight train line moved to avoid it cutting through koala habitat.

It was a rare victory in the combat to save the koala, and the same habitat is now under threat again. A developer who bought the land cheaply in the 1990s is now reportedly trying to sell it, and it is an attractive site for mining companies and other industrialists.

Speaker John Callaghan, from the Gold Coast City Council, spoke about the ongoing translocation of the koala population from Coomera to Pimpama in Queensland. Up to 80,000 people will be moving into the new Coomera town centre and its surroundings.

More than half of the local population of about 500 koalas lived in the area targeted for development. In a difficult and painstaking operation, 180 koalas are being relocated from more than 30 development sites and high-risk locations.

All the translocated koalas undergo medical checks, and 40 percent of them have shown signs of disease. About 25 percent have shown clinical signs of chlamydia, which can cause blindness, sterility, and death.

The three-day koala conference has been organised by the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, with the backing of the local Hastings Council. About 170 people are attending, including delegates from Europe and the US.

Speakers include Geoff Pye from San Diego Zoo, who spoke about hip and shoulder dysplasia in koalas in his zoo population, and in zoos run by its loan partners in Europe and North America. The abnormality is not generally found in wild populations.