Australia is one of the worst performing countries in terms of protecting its ecoregions. Koalas are a litmus test for conservation of a habitat in crisis
In 2016 koalas were sighted for the first time in decades at Mount Kembla, Wollongong and in Kosciuszko national park in New South Wales. Although these sightings are a source of hope, it’s important we don’t get lulled into a false sense of security about the extent to which nature, including koalas, is threatened in Australia. We have serious work to do to protect our unique plants and animals.
Most environment news these days focuses on climate change. In many ways this isn’t surprising. Climate change threatens to alter our entire environment as rainfall patterns change, temperatures rise and extremes become more common. Many species are already finding their habitats shrinking – just look at polar bears and the rapidly vanishing Arctic sea ice.
Yet amid this climate emergency “mere” species extinctions have largely been pushed out of mind. Of course the issues are intertwined as climate change can cause extinctions: in July the Bramble Cay melomys (a rodent) was reported as the first animal to have been made extinct primarily due to climate change. In its case, its single-island habitat had been repeatedly inundated by rising sea levels destroying the native vegetation and ultimately the species itself. And of course climate change threatens to exacerbate and amplify other threats to species like bushfires and heatwaves.
But human destruction of habitat is, at least in the short term, a much greater threat to species than climate change. In mid-December, scientists from the University of Queensland were part of a team that found, of all developed countries on Earth, Australia was performing worst in protecting its ecoregions (areas containing broadly similar habitat). The researchers identified “crisis ecoregions” where habitat loss is greatest. A crisis ecoregion in Australia? Temperate forests.
Enter the koala. Undoubtedly the most famous inhabitant of Australian temperate forest ecosystems, and arguably the world’s favourite species. But as you may expect from a species inhabiting a crisis ecoregion, it’s not faring so well. Historical accounts describe large numbers of koalas being seen regularly in the late 1800s in NSW. In 1921, 200,000 koala pelts passed through Sydney and in 1924 two million pelts were exported from eastern Australia.
Yet now all koala populations, bar a few in eastern Australia, are in decline. Some sharply so. So whether or not you find, as we do, the most recent estimate of 329,000 in Australia (36,000 koalas in NSW) to be optimistic one thing is clear: koala numbers are a fraction of what they once were and the species is slipping away.
In NSW, koalas are in the centre of a perfect storm largely of the government’s own making: changes to land clearing laws have already devastated bushland in Queensland and history threatens to repeat itself in NSW with the Baird government recently passing its land-clearing legislation.
Much remaining high-quality koala habitat is either on private land, thus at risk of clearing, or in state forests and thus subject to ever more intense state-sanctioned logging. Urban development is eating into koala habitat up and down the coast. And following this habitat destruction, koalas are vulnerable to dog attacks and vehicle strike as they spend more time on the ground.
If this were happening to a snail, or even a frog, it would probably be ignored. But koalas are one of the few animals whose plight the government finds it hard to ignore. That’s why the NSW government is currently beginning the development of a whole of government koala strategy and asking for community feedback on planning issues and its Saving Our Species conservation strategy. At a federal level, the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy expired in 2014. Word is that a new strategy is in the pipeline but at the moment we’re flying blind.
The best way to protect koalas is a tried and tested one. The scientists that identified the crisis ecoregion problem also identified the solution: large, well-connected protected areas. Only by protecting and connecting remaining koala habitat can the government enact meaningful conservation. Everything else is tinkering round the edges.
And only by demonstrating that it can effectively protect koalas can we have any confidence that the government can protect the rest of Australia’s extraordinary wildlife that doesn’t share the koala’s high profile.