The NSW Coalition government’s long anticipated Koala Strategy, which was released on May 6, has been condemned as inadequate and doomed to fail by conservation groups, which say it ignores the key threat of habitat loss.
The Koala Strategy consists of setting aside more than 20,000 hectares of state forest on the central coast, southern highlands, north coast, Hawkesbury and Hunter as new koala reserves; transferring 4000 hectares of native forest on the mid-north coast to national parks; spending $20 million to purchase prime koala habitat to be permanently reserved as national parks; creating a network of koala and wildlife hospitals; and creating a community monitoring system with a single wildlife rescue call number.
But conservationists warn that the plan will not prevent the continued loss of koalas in NSW and say adding small areas to the reserve system falls far short of a comprehensive strategy to protect the species.
Nature Conservation Council of NSW CEO Kate Smolski said: “Unless we rapidly stop destroying their habitat, koalas are at real risk of becoming extinct in many parts of NSW within our lifetimes.
“Less than one-year ago the [Gladys] Berejiklian government ushered in new environment laws, which made 99% of identified koala habitat on private land able to be bulldozed. This strategy ignores the new laws and fails to fix the problem.
“Any doctor will tell you that prevention is better than a cure. Koala hospitals are vital but by stopping the destruction of their habitat we will prevent many koalas getting injured in the first place.
“A real strategy to save koalas from extinction would include ending native forest logging, ensuring koala habitat cannot be bulldozed by developers and agribusiness, and creating the Great Koala National Park. The government’s strategy fails to do any of these things and as a result it will fail koalas.”
Scientists have warned that on current trends the koala is on track for extinction in NSW by 2055. A 2016 report from the NSW Chief Scientist found that the state’s koala population has dropped by a quarter over the past 20 years, down from a population of millions at the time of European settlement. The state is now home to fewer than 10% of the nation’s koalas, with just 36,000 remaining in the wild.
Last year World Wildlife Fund-Australia reported that koala numbers in the Pilliga have dropped by a staggering 80% since the 1990s; in the south-east there are thought to be fewer than 60 koalas left; while west of the Great Dividing Range, 90% of known populations are in decline.
Since the Coalition government was elected in 2011, it has introduced land clearing laws that could lead to 8 million hectares of core koala habitat being destroyed; sold core koala habitat at the Mambo Wetlands in Port Stephens to developers for $250,000; directed the route of the Pacific Highway upgrade at Ballina through core koala habitat; allowed housing development in core koala habitat in the Macarthur region; and refused to support the Great Koala National Park, calling it “a political gimmick”.
North East Forest Alliance spokesperson Dailan Pugh said: "If the objective is to stabilise and then increase koala numbers over the longer term the highest priority has to be to identify and protect the remaining core habitat for koalas on publicly owned state forests from further degradation.
"For example, while it is good to see the 3000 hectare Mount Lindesay State Forest made into a reserve, only 8% [of the forest has been] identified by 2017 DPI [Department of Primary Industries] mapping as high quality koala habitat, [making] it a poor choice as a high priority Koala Reserve.
"Until the government releases the details of the proposed koala reserves we can't be sure what specific areas they are proposing to reserve, though from the Mount Lindesay example we expect that the Forestry Corporation has simply been allowed to choose which forests they want to get rid of with no criteria or methodology applied to identify the highest priority koala areas for protection.”
National Parks Association of NSW senior ecologist Oisín Sweeney said he fears the new strategy “will prove inadequate and a waste of money under current policy settings”.
He said the government had “removed the brakes on deforestation on private land and now plans to spend $20 million to buy habitat at risk due to that decision. That’s a questionable use of public money.
“The small scale and scattered nature of the koala reserves and parks are an inadequate response to sharp declines in koalas state wide. What was needed was a bold strategy, addressing threats from land clearing, logging and urban development — and we’ve not got that.
“The best chance for koala recovery is large, well connected reserves that protect habitat and provide east-west links to deal with climate change. Small isolated patches are highly vulnerable to catastrophic events like fire and ignore the threat of climate change.
“We have proposed the Great Koala National Park and several other reserves to protect some of the best habitat in NSW and provide the vital links to help koalas cope with climate change.”