BY MERRILL WITT
Current predictions for the future of wild koalas in NSW are very grim, according to testimony given by scientific and environmental experts at last Friday’s Upper House inquiry into “Koala populations and habitat in NSW.”
Sydney University’s Associate Professor of Life and Environmental Sciences Mathew Crowther, whose research focus is the Liverpool Plains’ koalas, predicted that wild koalas would likely be extinct by 2050 because of the twin effects of habitat loss from land clearing for agriculture and housing and the increased frequency of extreme heat waves due to climate change.
At least 70% of the koalas in the Liverpool Plains are positive for chlamydia, a sexually transmitted infection that is also common in the region’s cows and sheep.
Impact on koala fertility
Dr Crowther said studies of cortisol levels in koala droppings suggest that the disease may be activated by higher than normal stress levels in their environment.
One of the most worrying aspects of chlamydia in koalas is its impact on fertility. According to Dr Crowther, the chances of the Liverpool Plains’ koalas growing in number are slim because the juvenile population is low due to the high rate of chlamydia.
The southwest Sydney koala population was an important focus of the hearing. The Committee heard that this “koala hub” is unique in NSW because at around 500 koalas it represents the only significant chlamydia-free population in the state.
Committee Chair Cate Faehrmann (Greens MCL) was particularly interested to hear about the potential impact on koalas from Lendlease’s proposed redevelopment of the historic Mt Gilead rural property just outside of Campbelltown into a housing estate of 1,500 dwellings.
The Total Environment Centre’s Urban Sustainability Campaigner Saul Deane said that Campbelltown Council was wrong to rezone Mt Gilead for residential development.
“Not only did the rezoning contradict key recommendations of the Council’s own koala management strategy,” he said, but it will “destroy the key west-east habitat corridor which gives koalas essential access to fresh water from the Nepean and Georges rivers.”
The contradictory nature of the NSW legislation was highlighted by the experts. According to Rachel Walmsley, Policy and Law Reform Director at EDO NSW, the aims of environmental laws are often in conflict with planning and forestry legislation. The “laws also allow too much discretionary power” about whether koala habitat deserves protection, she said. “No laws prohibit the destruction of koala habitat” and “the wriggle room in the new biodiversity offset regime is appalling because everything is amenable.”
Threats to koala habitat have also been exacerbated by the introduction in 2017 of code-based land clearing, which environmental experts believe has led to an acceleration in land-clearing rates because it was implemented before vegetation mapping was updated.
The new regulatory framework allows for self-assessment by property owners of land that should be protected. In Dr Crowther’s opinion, self-assessment removes “important checks and balances.”
Committee member Catherine Cusack (Liberal MLC) explained that Forestry Corporation NSW has assured the Committee that the current supply of timber from logging in state forests could be maintained without jeopardising environmental protections for koalas. Senior Ecologist at the National Parks Association Oisin Sweeney questioned the logic of this assertion given that the Forestry Corporation now wants to renew logging in old-growth forests. He painted a very bleak picture of how industrialised forestry management practices have led to large-scale clearfelling.
So can we hold out any hope for the future of our beloved national icon?
Call for UNESCO ruling
Stuart Blanch, the WWF Australian Forest and Woodlands Conservation Policy Manager said Australia should look to China for guidance. The dire circumstances of China’s giant pandas started to reverse when China took the unusual step of applying for UNESCO World Heritage status for their habitat. Recently China has established the vast Giant Panda National Park to restore and reconnect fragmented giant panda habitats.
Experts told the panel that putting the brakes on residential growth in the southwest and preserving the visionary green belt around Campbelltown were necessary first steps required to protect the state’s healthiest koala population.
The National Parks Association and others have also advocated the establishment of the Great Koala National Park in the Coffs Harbour hinterland. It would add 175,000ha of state forests to existing protected areas in order to create a 315,000ha reserve. If approved, the park would contain 44% of all koala hubs in NSW state forests.
Time and resolve is of the essence if Australia wants to avoid international humiliation and save the koalas for our future generations.