Conservationists have warned the koala is on the path towards extinction following the failure to release a strategy to actively reverse the decline of the marsupial species.
The federal government has published new guidelines to help reduce the impact of new development upon koala. It points out that koala populations have rapidly shrunk due to the destruction of vegetation and increasing risk of koalas being hit by cars or attacked by dogs.
The guidelines suggest certain mitigation measures, such as underpasses or bridges across highways, but there is no recovery strategy for the koala, which was listed as vulnerable in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory in 2012.
The environment department said a national recovery plan was “under development” with state and territory governments, although there was no date for its release. A recovery plan was due to be unveiled by the end of 2014 due to the expiration of a five-year strategy that ran since 2009.
The lack of a recovery plan alongside the guidelines for developers has dismayed conservationists, who warn that the koala needs urgent action to save it.
“Where is the recovery plan? That is my big question,” said Deborah Tabart, chief executive of the Australian Koala Foundation. “The states are incapable of protecting the koala, which is why we went for a federal listing in the first place. There’s no doubt these guidelines will just refer things back to the states. They’ll be useless.
“We need a national recovery plan that would mean developers have to change their behavior. And yet there’s no sign of it. They’ve got rid of so many people in the department I’m not even sure there’s anyone left who can do it.”
Koalas are extremely vulnerable to climate change and, when they stray from their favoured trees, are at risk from being run over by cars or mauled by dogs.
But the loss and fragmentation of vast tracts of koala-friendly vegetation, especially in the eastern states, is the primary reason koala numbers have slumped by 40% in Queensland and by a third in NSW over the past 20 years.
“The koala is on its way to extinction,” Tabart said. “I’m tired of having to explain, over the past 28 years, that if a koala has its house cut down, it starves to death, or a dog or car wipes them out. Until there’s something that says ‘no, Mr Developer, you can’t cut the trees down’, we’ll keep having extinctions.”
Ecologists view koalas as a key “flagship” species that shares habitat with hundreds of other threatened species. Therefore, protecting koala eucalypt habitat would also safeguard many other plants and animals.
Prof Corey Bradshaw, an ecologist at the University of Adelaide, said the development guidelines were an example of a “toothless” Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, the main federal legislation to protect nationally significant species.
“There’s nothing in the act that mandates any restoration of habitat and there are so many loopholes that developers can find,” he said. “If your definition of restoration is putting in an underpass and a koala fence, you are putting them on the way to extinction.
“We’ve lost 40% of Australian bush since European arrival and the rest is fragmented. There’s virtually no area of eucalypt left untouched, so it’s no surprise the koalas are struggling.
“The only way to recovery is a 20 to 30-year plan of mass reforestation and connectivity. That is beyond debate. We should have a goal for increasing net forest cover.
“But there seems no appetite in government for this. We are seeing deforestation even in national parks, so the future doesn’t look very bright for koalas.”
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