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Koala campaigners warn NSW is overseeing ‘strategy for extinction’

As the Bob Brown Foundation joins the campaign to save koalas and their habitat in NSW, an online seminar hosted by the foundation last week saw koala campaigners reveal the extent of losses in koala populations and their habitat.

As the Bob Brown Foundation joins the campaign to save koalas and their habitat in NSW, an online seminar hosted by the foundation last week saw koala campaigners reveal the extent of losses in koala populations and their habitat.

NSW Greens MP and the chair of the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry on Koala Populations and Habitat, Cate Faehrmann, presented a summary of the parliamentary committee’s main findings and recommendations. Faehrmann said that the committee also comprised members from the Liberal, National and Labor parties, and recommendations were arrived at by consensus.

“The headline finding – and this is even before the fires – [was that] unless the government acts, the koala will become extinct in NSW before 2050,” she said in the seminar. “What it means in terms of government action is that the government must act to prevent further loss or fragmentation of koala habitat.”

“We got both the government members as well as Labor and other members to agree to that finding – and we also got them to agree that the most serious threat to the survival of koalas is the ongoing loss and fragmentation of habitat,” Faehrmann continued.

“If the government does not stop the loss and fragmentation of habitat, they may as well be out there, willing to admit to the NSW public that they are overseeing an extinction plan.”

The committee heard that koala numbers in NSW were in serious decline before the 2019/20 bushfires.

“Before the fires the NSW state government said that there were 36,000 koalas in NSW,” said Faehrmann. “This was a figure out of a 2016 report, based on a 2012 study that was referring to how significantly they were declining. So by the time you get to 2020, 36,000 is incredibly out of date.”

Faehrmann said that in 2019, environment groups including WWF and the Nature Conservation Council, commissioned a report that found koala numbers in NSW were around 15,000-20,000 before the fires.

“If you’re dealing with threatened species and wanting to put in place recovery plans, to make sure that they don’t become extinct, the precautionary principle will dictate that you look at the figure of 15,000,” she said.

“The loss of koalas in terms of numbers during [the 2019/20] fire season might be 5,000 across the state.”

Faehrmann said that the NSW government’s koala strategy was a “strategy for extinction”.

“It’s essentially greenwashing – making it look like the government is doing something on koalas when in fact they’re not,” she said. “This strategy was really doing nothing to protect koala habitat … and unless we do that, their future is extremely uncertain.”

One of the key recommendations of the parliamentary inquiry is the establishment of two new national parks, created specifically to preserve koala habitat – the Great Koala National Park and the Georges River Koala National Park.

North East Forest Alliance forest campaigner Dailan Pugh presented the preliminary findings on the amount of habitat lost in the north-east of the state.

“[The 2019/20 fires] burned 322,000 hectares of what is mapped as likely koala habitat,” he said. “That’s roughly 200,000 hectares of that suffered significant canopy loss.”

“Most koalas in the firegrounds died.”

Pugh said that the NSW government has identified Areas of Regional Koala Significance and Koala Hubs, that indicate clusters of long-term resident koala populations.

“These are the most important areas that we know of to protect koalas,” said Pugh.

The data he presented during the seminar indicated that 7,300 hectares (66%) of the Koala Hubs in the surveyed area have been logged over the last 20 years, and 35% was burnt in the 2019/20 fires.

“Now they are starting to log the burnt forest,” he said. “The EPA has approved 5,000 hectares for logging. And there’s another 3,700 hectares identified for logging over the next 12 months.”

Pugh said that, for koalas living on private land, the situation is worse than for public lands.

“The inquiry found that there really is no protection for koalas on private land – not from logging, not from land clearing, it’s open slather,” he said.

The long term rates of loss of woody vegetation in NSW have remained steady at around 30,000 hectares per annum but in the past few years it has risen to 60,000. Pugh said that agriculture is responsible for about half of that and 38% is due to forestry.

“Some of that will grow back but you’re losing your big trees that koalas like,” he said.

“We need people to stand up and speak out for koalas, and stop what’s been going on for so long.”

“It amazes me that we have all these rules and regulations, all these controls, and in practice they amount to nothing.”

Photo: Chris Fithall/Flickr

Sarah Jacob

Sarah Jacob is a journalist and editor and is currently The Advocate's Deputy Editor. She has written for a range of print and online publications across Australia and internationally with a focus on the environment and human rights. Previously she worked in conservation science and protected area management, and has completed postgraduate degrees in journalism and marine science.