On 29 October when I attended the NSW Koala Conference, forebodingly entitled “The Vanishing”, I experienced a range of complex emotions. Whilst a sense of applied hope must be adopted communally to give energy and endurance to the essential recovery of koalas in NSW, a pervasive sense of frustration and despair was the strongest lingering impression.
The Conference, held at Coffs Harbour, was convened by long-standing and respected former Liberal Member of the NSW Legislative Assembly, Catherine Cusack, whose high ethical standards meant she famously crossed the floor and clashed with parliamentary colleagues on issues relating to the environment, human rights, and the governmental response to the north coast floods.
Over 180 people, from diverse backgrounds and interests, including several from our local MidCoast Council area, took part in the conference. There was also a large online audience. Over 20 speakers provided engaging, challenging, and thought-provoking presentations across themes relating to the scientific evidence of the koala crisis, regional reports from koala risk hotspots, koala politics, the Aboriginal perspective and practical koala recovery actions.
Greed and Mismanagement
Independent researcher, Dr Steve Phillips, has been at the forefront of koala population and biological research and monitoring for over four decades. Dr Phillips confirmed that habitat loss and modification is the prevailing threat, with other threats being synergistic to this root cause. His presentation traced the extent of government mismanagement of koalas in NSW and the destructive force of greed in native forest logging, agriculture, and development. He highlighted how deliberate political interference and obfuscation has polarised and hamstrung conservation. Interestingly, Dr Phillips recognised explicitly the presence of a highly significant koala population in our own Tinonee area.
Impactful presentations by Dr Phillips, Dr Kara Youngentob and Professor Mark Krockengerber reinforced that koalas are “landscape” species. Effective protection relies on preserving or restoring the quality of habitat that meets the needs of the complex social networks of koala populations. MidCoast Council’s “Koala Safe Spaces” concept therefore has substantial merit. It remains to be seen if this can be delivered on the ground in the context of NSW politics.
An “around the grounds” look at koala populations in centres such as Port Macquarie, Campbelltown and Gunnedah gave pause to reflect that nothing can be taken for granted in koala conservation. The combined forces of stress, disease and climate change has wrecked the population of koalas across the Liverpool Plains. Here, the koala was so numerous and apparently so robust, that Gunnedah proclaimed itself as the koala capital. That was in 2010! And now, only 12 years later, the population there may be functionally extinct; it has declined so much, so fast.
The salient Welcome to Country by Gumbaynggirr Elder, Uncle Micklo Jarrett, was a sublime frame to a recognition that the destruction of koalas is coincident with the destruction of Aboriginal knowledge and their dispossession of Country. Nathan Brennan from the Gumbaynggir Good Koala Country Plan spoke passionately about Indigenous led koala recovery. Catherine Cusack called for a new paradigm of custodianship and care and the relinquishment of a 230-year pattern of power, control, and exploitation over nature in Australia. This is the pattern that has led to our biodiversity crisis, of which the koala typifies. And if we cannot preserve the koala, a unique Australian icon, what hope is there for all nature and wildlife, and indeed, ourselves?
Candid insights into the NSW State politics of koalas and the insidious NSW coalition “koala wars” induced perhaps the highest states of despair and frustration. Koala legislation, despite the government rhetoric, were described as “complex, contradictory, confusing, shambolic laws that actually facilitate the continued loss of koalas and their habitat”. Laws are not protecting koalas! And all in attendance recognised that the koala cannot be preserved, let alone doubled (as is the NSW Government target), while its’ habitat is being lawfully and unlawfully cleared and developed and logged on an industrial scale. Deliberately insipid land clearing laws and absent or toothless regulators facilitate the chronic destruction of habitat and prevent any chance of koala recovery. Doubling the NSW koala population is unachievable when the NSW Government has not yet addressed, and seems unwilling to address, the principal cause of decline – the loss of habitat.
All the regional partnerships, dollars for tree planting and genuine efforts of well-intentioned Council environmental staff, regional koala project officers and local volunteers will not protect koalas in the current context of pervasive and destructive land clearing laws and destructive forest practices across NSW.
The Nationals Don’t Seem to Care
The NSW Government has boasted that it has the goal of doubling the koala population of the state by 2050. It now seems clear that when this announcement was made it was little more than a thought bubble uttered for naked political purposes. The recent attempt by the Government, initiated by the always anti-environment National Party, to loosen controls on the harvesting of native forests on private land is another example of the fact that it is not really serious about protecting koalas. Thankfully there was sufficient opposition in the Parliament to defeat this ill-thought-out proposal.
The perception of hope that was generated from the conference related to the feeling amongst participants that “enough is enough”. Previous experience has shown that a mobilised community can effect positive change. Relevant examples include the end of rainforest logging in the 1970’s, the stopping of the Franklin Dam in the 1980’s and the refusal of plans for coal seam gas and Rocky Hill coal mining in the Gloucester area.
There is still hope that a mobilised community can pressure the NSW Government to conserve koalas.
On a more positive note, the Gloucester Environment Group has a Koalaways program where volunteers plant koala friendly trees on private properties in the area. This has proved to be very popular with many landowners and there is presently a waiting list. This activity would not be possible without the enthusiastic encouragement and support of the MidCoast Council and staff for which the Environment Group and local koalas are grateful. Interested property owners can get on board by contacting Di Montague on 0419 880 804.
Retired Barrister, Gloucester resident, and author of ‘Nine Lives for Our Planet’ and ‘The Town That Said NO to AGL. How Gloucester Was Saved from Coal Seam Gas’. John is also the president of the Gloucester Environment Group