- Are green policies killing our koalas?
- Lantana – the ‘growing’ enemy
- Too many National Parks?
- Are koalas our next endangered species?
- Efforts to save Queensland’s koalas.
- Cash or conservation?
The koala is Australia’s most loved and treasured marsupial. Their fate is in OUR hands, and yet efforts to protect them often result in threatening their survival. The survival of our koalas represents more than protecting ‘a loved and adorable Australian icon’. It is estimated that koalas are worth close to $4 billion a year in tourism as half of all international visitors’ rate getting up close and personal with our furry national icon as their number one Aussie experience. Survival of our koalas is also a measure of how we, as a nation, manage our environment and protect our native animals.
Koalas are under pressure in our urban and rural environments. New developments in urban areas impinge on- or destroy known koala habitats and colonies. Well-meaning and well-intentioned conservation groups and Local Governments replace these existing habitats with new ‘Special Wildlife Reserves’. State Governments purchase productive farmland for new National Parks to increase ‘green space’.
These newly locked-up green spaces in National Parks and Special Wildlife Reserves, intended for the protection of vegetation and wildlife, don’t always achieve the desired outcomes. Many of these areas are poorly maintained by state and local authorities and become weed infested and inhabited by wild dogs and other predatory animals. The ‘Green policies’ that have driven many legislative changes, have often resulted in black outcomes!
To change the future for koalas, we must measure success and address failures.
Lantana is a threat to Koala habitat by impeding movement across the forest floor.
Both State and Local Governments are BREACHING their own Biosecurity legislation by allowing the proliferation of lantana on land under their care.
Growing infestations of this ‘prickly poisonous enemy’ are occurring in National Parks, Wildlife Reserves and other publicly owned land. Lantana is listed as a Category 3 Invasive Weed under the Queensland Biosecurity Act 2014. Its toxic threat to native species is well known but there is a lack of resolve to address the problem.
State Governments are responsible for the maintenance of National Parks and Local Governments for Wildlife Reserves and other publicly owned land. Under the Biosecurity Act, all 77 local councils in Queensland are required to create a Biosecurity Plan for their local area. Local Councils have been handed the responsibility by the State Government to manage local parks and wildlife reserves, but it is the State Government that has the resources required to tackle the proliferation of invasive weeds and predatory animals that spread over much of Queensland’s National Parks.
It is recognized that infestations of lantana, obstruct koala corridors and destroy koala habitat. Predators wait in any remaining corridors to run down moving koalas. Movement between trees and social interaction becomes so restricted that malnutrition and limited reproduction destroys colonies.
In addition, the prevalence of damaged eucalypt foliage through Bell Miner Associated Dieback (BMAD) further contributes to food stress for koalas. The association between lantana and the Bell Miner bird is well known. They are found in large colonies in areas heavily infested with lantana.
Lantana provides the Bell Minor with the perfect protected habitat! Dense Bell Miner colonies facilitate sustained psyllid infestations that lead to dieback of eucalypts and loss of food for koalas.
BMAD is listed as a key threatening process under the NSW Threatened Species Conservation Act (1,2)
Hundreds of hectares of dying eucalypts associated with BMAD and lantana can be seen (below) in the D’Aguilar National Park.
Lantana Infestation with BMAD Spells Doom for Native Species; particularly Koalas.
State and local governments are always eager to impress with increased areas of National Park and Wildlife Reserves for biodiversity. This may involve purchasing productive farmland, ‘locking the gates’ and allowing the land to ‘re-wild’. Left unmanaged, this results in infestations of weeds and feral animals that crowd out natives. Lantana then becomes a serious problem for adjacent landholders.
Lantana is toxic to Koalas, cattle, sheep, goats, many native animals, and children. It is a woody, highly flammable weed creating a high fire-risk in National Parks and State Forests. (3) Lantana acts as a ‘fire-ladder’ taking flames into the tree canopy leaving Koalas no avenue of escape.
The cost of weed eradication and loss of productivity has been estimated at an overall average cost of nearly $5 billion annually across Australia (4).
This loss of productivity from weeds impacts the nation’s agriculture and horticulture. In the beef cattle industry, lantana causes severe distress and death to cattle. Its allelopathic properties inhibit crop growth and degrade productive farmland.
Not all ‘Green’ Policies result in a better environment.
Those responsible for the management of land must undertake their duty-of-care. State and Local Governments must NOT breach their own Biosecurity legislation.
It is now argued that Australia has too many National Parks, that are being locked-up and allowed to re-wild into weed and feral-pest infested areas.
Queensland tops the list with 237 National Parks, closely followed by New South Wales with 235. Then comes Western Australia with 101, Victoria with 45, South Australia and Tasmania each with 19, the Northern Territory with 24 and the Australian Capital Territory with one. In addition, there are thousands of conservation areas, forest reserves and Indigenous protected areas. (5)
In Queensland, to address falling habitat areas the state government has added more than 3300 hectares of bushland including potential koala habitat to the Mount Walsh National Park outside Maryborough.
Along with other increases Queensland’s national park estate is now roughly the size of the state of Tasmania. Areas designed as National Parks and Special Wildlife Reserves are subject to Vegetation Management Legislation and Biosecurity Acts. Those responsible for the maintenance of these areas are State Governments and Local Councils.
Does Australia have more National Parks than we have resources to manage?
We have more than the UK, Brazil, South Africa, India, and China combined, but how many are globally significant? (6)
It is true that Australia’s most spectacular landscapes and seascapes are to be found in our national parks. They are places for tourism and simple family holidays where we can enjoy big blue skies by day and glittering stars by night. They are also the most important places for conservation and biodiversity. They include Australia’s great wilderness areas and are a lasting legacy for future generations.
The only question is how many of these National Parks really measure up? The reality is that once productive farmland secured as National Parks or wildlife reserves have been allowed to become infested with weed and feral animals. These areas have become a severe bushfire risk and a hostile environment for Australia’s native species.
The increase in ‘green refuge areas’ for koalas, unless properly managed, becomes a dangerous habitat and increased bushfire risk.
The World Wildlife Foundation estimates there are just 300,000 Koalas left in Australia and they could be extinct by 2050.
We must change our current practices to address this! Currently listed as ‘vulnerable’ koala numbers are now critically low as the result of the 2019/20 bushfires. The encroachment of urban sprawl and highways into Koala habitat has seen numbers fall due to road deaths, dog attacks and lack of food. (7,8)
A halt to habitat clearing as a part of urban development would be a good place to start!
It is now feared that over 5,000 koalas were killed in the bushfires in NSW alone, and the national bushfire toll is at a point where they may be classified as ‘endangered’. (9,10,11)
A recent report by BioLink Principal Research Scientist Dr. Stephen Philips stated:
Koalas have already been under stress from land clearing, urban development and the drought with the state’s population declining by between 30 and 67 per cent since 2001.
We’ve taken a conservative approach. But we still think that we have lost two out of every three Koalas in NSW. It’s a spectacular loss in terms of conservation criteria and meet endangered listing almost immediately.
More than 12 million acres of land burned across NSW during the bushfires, and nearly 45 million acres burned across Australia leaving many Koala habitats decimated.
Food sources for surviving koalas were severely reduced, endangering recovery rates. (12)
Koala’s also experience high stress levels when their habitat is destroyed resulting in increased diseases and decreased reproductive ability. (13)
Finding an ‘immediate, ongoing and significant threat of extinction’, the report states that koalas are eligible for a provisional listing as ‘endangered’ on an emergency basis under the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act of 2016. The endangered listing would be in place for two years to allow the species the breathing space to recover while experts further evaluate the situation. (14)
The coming Bushfire Royal Commission will cover, among other issues, hazard reduction management in National Parks and publicly owned land. The keeping of Koala corridors clear of invasive and toxic flora, removing predatory wild dogs and frequent cool burning, may provide safer habitats for our koalas.
To assure a future for Koalas – we must change the way we manage existing habitats, invasive vegetation and pests.
Extensive community efforts and special programs to protect Koalas are critically important to their survival.
Koala habitats that are degraded or rendered ‘hostile environments’ must be restored or replaced.
The Palaszczuk Government has announced (Nov 2018) a new Koala Advisory Council designed to address an 80 per cent reduction in koala numbers in Redlands and other parts of south-east Queensland. Measures to restore Koala numbers include tighter controls on land developers, a review of Koala land offsets and possible exchange of ‘high conservation value’ land for low-value areas. (15,16)
The Government also provided $140,500 to Australia Zoo for animal rehabilitation and koala habitat restoration work. A further $40,500 was allocated for Australia Zoo Wildlife Warriors who manage the hospital – to improve koala habitat through land restoration. The project involved the removal of Lantana from 260 hectares east of Blackbutt, and pest management to reduce feral animal attacks on koalas and other wildlife. Whilst commendable, this highly visible but small example represents what is needed on a broader, on-going scale.
The Queensland Government has also released new Koala habitat mapping for South East Queensland to support implementation of the South East Queensland Koala Conservation Strategy and amended koala conservation protections within the planning framework. (17)
The South East Queensland Koala Conservation Plan Map establishes:
- Koala Priority Areas – large, connected areas focusing on habitat protection, habitat restoration and threat mitigation.
- Koala habitat areas – areas that are subject to protections under new Koala conservation protections
- Koala districts map – establishes what requirements of the Nature Conservation (Koala) Conservation Plan 2017 apply to each area of Queensland.
In other koala conservation efforts within South East Queensland, the Sunshine Coast Council, in conjunction with the Queensland State Government has purchased 2,400 hectares of land in Tewantin for $ 3.5million, as a Koala refuge.
Efforts to provide extra habitat are noble causes, however, questions must be asked about the viability of shifting koalas for development. Koalas are territorial animals and are reluctant to establish colonies in foreign environments. (18)
Koalas live over a range of open forest and woodland communities but ultimately their habitat is defined by the presence of a select group of food trees. They will remain, however, where their habitat has been partially cleared even in urban areas. (19)
Koalas maintain complex highly territorial social groups. Individual Koalas live in their own ‘home range’ areas and have stable breeding groups. Trees are the Koala’s family homes, bedrooms, kitchens and nurseries. If these critical trees are removed, the Koalas lose both food and shelter.
A Koala cannot just ‘move next door’ if these trees are removed- as ‘next door’ already belongs another Koala. If an obstacle like a road or house is placed between the trees that comprise the Koala’s home range, it may be cut off from adequate food and shelter and risk injury or death from cars, dogs or disease. (20)
Koalas will live their entire lives in the same place unless they’re forced to move. Relocated Koalas adapt very poorly to new environments and the majority do not survive, which is why injured Koalas that have been looked after by a wildlife carer can only be returned to their home territory or housed in a sanctuary. (21)
Efforts to establish new habitats while commendable, are highly dependent on koalas forming colonies in foreign locations. The evidence proves to date, the majority of koala relocations are mainly unsuccessful.
In urban areas, koalas are under threat from urban sprawl.
While much is being done to protect koalas, Peter Gleeson writing for the Courier Mail, reports that new developments are still being given the green light in known urban koala habitats.
After concerns about the clearing of land at Morayfield, north of Brisbane, for a 3000-lot development — effectively wiping out a koala colony — it has emerged that the Pacific Golf Club at Carindale has applied to destroy 20 mature eucalyptus trees to build retirement villas adjacent to the golf course. (22)
This is one example of ongoing encroachment, despite changes to legislation. There are also other issues not being properly addressed by State and local Governments.
In 2010 a State Government ‘proposed policy’ to relocate koalas from land earmarked for development was met with anger from Ipswich wildlife activists. Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland State President and taskforce member Simon Baltais said: “Moving koalas from one habitat to another was proven to not work. The reason why koalas are heading towards extinction is because we keep clearing their habitat, a point seemingly lost on the State Government” (23)
In regional areas koalas face other challenges:
Much of Queensland is owned by private landholders, who have areas of nature refuge on their properties adding valuable conservation for biodiversity, and a sanctuary for native animals. Landholders manage these areas, keeping feral animals out, and weed infestations under control. The majority of costs for management is borne by landholders, with small state grants intermittently available to assist.
There are growing demands for the state government to provide extra funding to assist farmers maintaining these nature refuges. These areas are critically important for the protection of vulnerable or endangered species like the koala and night parrot. (24)
At present, the Queensland government contributes $4.6 million a year to the state’s nature refuge network – a large network of more than 500 nature refuges.
The contribution comes in the form of small grants to the landowners. By contrast, the New South Wales Government contributes $61.7 million each year to private landholders managing nature refuges. ($247 million to private landholders for managing nature refuges over the four years to 2020-21) (25)
It appears ‘cost’ may be another ‘critical issue’ in the way we care for our Koalas.
Many Queenslanders were therefore outraged when in September 2019, State Labor Treasurer, Jackie Trad, approved a $1,250 ‘bonus to 200,000 Queensland Public Servants to ‘stimulate the economy’. This was a bonus for Labor’s largely city-based voters at the same time farmers were under stress from a prolonged drought and draconian new Vegetation Management Laws. The Small Business Council called this cash-gift of taxpayer money ‘reckless and morally wrong’.
This decision by the Treasurer, came as a hit of $250 million to the Queensland budget; at a time that Koalas were facing more habitat destruction and a catastrophic bushfire season that consequently decimated numbers. (26)
Conservation comes at a cost. Is there enough cash for votes, but not for Koalas?
- National Parks and Special Wildlife Reserves, must be maintained and kept free of invasive pests to provide suitable habitats for Koalas
- Nature Refuges on privately-owned land have proven of conservation value, but landholders need more than token financial assistance from the State Government.
- Developments that destroy known habitats should be ceased as soon as is practical.
- Developments close to known Koala habitats should not be given planning permission unless nearby habitats are protected.
- New National Park and Special Wildlife Reserves for relocated Koalas are yet to be proven successful. Effort must be placed on supporting Koalas in their present habitats.
What can you do?
- Write or talk to your State MP and local Councillor. Give them a copy of this article.
- Join a local Koala friendly group
- Don’t support more land for habitats, without proof that the science is sound, and the land will be properly managed.
- Invite your friends to join us cost free https://www.riteon.org.au/get-involved/
- Donate to help us continue to research controversial topics and lobby for change https://www.riteon.org.au/donate/
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