It’s time for us to face the very real prospect that, without serious and committed intervention from the Federal Government, koalas could be facing near-extinction in coming years, and future generations of Australians may only have the chance to see koalas in captivity.
Last week, during the G20 summit, we saw lots of photos emerge of our prime minister cuddling koalas alongside the attending world leaders. This is not unusual – many visiting dignitaries take advantage of a photo opportunity with our national icon.
But what happens when there are no koalas left for our world leaders to cuddle?
At the time of European settlement, there is estimated to have been millions of koalas across Australia. Today, conservative estimates suggest there are at most 80,000 left in the wild, whilst others place the number at fewer than 50,000.
In Queensland, the State Government’s Koala Population Report 2010 showed a 68 per cent decline in koala numbers since 1996-1999.
At that rate, it would take less than 40 years for koala numbers Australia-wide to drop to below 5,000.
There has been quite a bit of press lately concerning the impact of chlamydia on koala populations. This disease is clearly a massive and very serious problem, with up to 50 per cent of koalas across Queensland alone estimated to be affected by this condition, which causes blindness, infertility and can be fatal.
However, this is not even the biggest threat facing the koala. Reports of a vaccine tend to lull the public into a false sense of security – all we need is for the scientists to roll out the vaccine and the koalas are saved, right?
No. the vaccine requires more testing and current government funding promises fall well short of what is required for effective field trials. Providing additional funding can be sourced, and more testing can be done (something that will take several years), this new vaccine will definitely help to reduce, and perhaps eventually eliminate, this disease amongst koalas. It won’t, however, address the larger, and ultimately more devastating issue of habitat destruction.
Between mining, logging, urban property development and bushfires (including back-burning and other fire prevention methods), koalas have lost over 80 per cent of their natural habitat. Koalas eat mainly eucalyptus leaves, and only from certain species of gum tree. Couple that with their territorial nature and there are usually very limited options for translocating koala populations when their local environment is threatened.
Even in areas where some habitat remains, these are usually small pockets of bushland surrounded by commercial or urban development, which brings with it cars, trucks and dogs, which all account for horrific injuries and koala deaths across the country.
Currently the conservation of koalas is handled predominantly by state and territory governments and their policies are inconsistent and largely ineffective.
In 2012, the then Labor Government finally listed koalas as a vulnerable species under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act). This had the potential to have a meaningful impact on koala populations, however since its implementation, the Australian Koala Foundation has reported breaches and major loopholes in the legislation.
For example, urban development is one of the biggest threats to koala populations, yet land clearing does not ‘trigger’ the current Act, meaning that development through areas known to be home to koala populations is effectively not prohibited.
Ultimately, the implementation of a national Koala Protection Act is not only essential to ensuring the long-term conservation of our national icon, but will also be easier and more efficient to monitor and enact.
A Koala Protection Act also sends a clear message to all Australians that koalas are in need of protection and that everyone in the country is responsible for their welfare. This is particularly crucial given that 80 per cent of the remaining habitat for koalas is on private land.
The United States recognised the value of their national fauna emblem and implemented the Bald Eagle Protection Act all the way back in 1940. Almost three quarters of a century later, Australia is yet to afford the same protection to an animal that, amongst other things, is a major component of our tourism industry.
There will come a time when it is too late to have this discussion. Tourists (not to mention visiting presidents) will arrive on our shore, only to learn that koalas are endangered, maybe even extinct in the wild.
The rest of the world will wonder how on earth we let this happen – WE will wonder how we let this happen.
The answer will be obvious in hindsight. But it doesn’t have to come to that.
We have the answer already, the most crucial step towards protecting our koalas, and that is a national Koala Protection Act.
Surely the koalas have waited long enough.
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