Saturday, December 18, 2010

WHY WE CAN'T CONSERVE KOALAS - Letter to the Editor, Courier Mail

May 23, 2009
Koalas are rapidly marching down the path to extinction, along with a host of our other forest-dwelling wildlife.  Do not think for one moment that I am being alarmist or exaggerating:  losing nearly 50% of a koala population every 5-15 years (that's based on the figures from a bureaucratic and conservative Queensland EPA) is not a statistic that is conducive to long-term survival.

The simplistic reason for this dramatic decline in koala numbers is that people like to live, work and farm land in the same areas that koalas like to live.  So we bulldoze and cut down their forests to make way for our houses, factories and agriculture, then slice up any remaining habitat with highways, roads and other infrastructure, which koalas either cannot cross, or die in their attempts to do so.  If you're the type of person who thinks that wildlife should just be protected in national parks and reserves, then here's something to think about: The proportion of koala habitat actually contained and protected in national parks and reserves is not enough to ensure their survival. It's as simple as that.

Dig a little deeper into the koala issue and you find that the more complex and disgusting truth is that the real conservation of koalas is a very low priority for our state and federal governments.  What is  more important for them is the appearance of wanting to conserve koalas, because that can win votes, but from a political standpoint,  koalas are nothing more than an irritation, albeit an irritation that can occasionally have significant political consequences.

The demise of the Goss government in Queensland in the 1995 election is partly attributed to their keenness to put a highway smack in the middle of a major koala habitat.  They lost power and the road did not go ahead.    However, they did learn that a brazen disregard for koalas might not be a good public image -- better to appear to care for the iconic animal.  Then followed a number of State Planning Policies for koala conservation and the much anticipated "Koala Plan" of 2006.  Although appearing to do so, none of these documents ever seriously addressed the issues causing the decline of koalas.  It is apparent now that they were never intended to:  the perceived consequences of ratifying a document that had real intent and the teeth to enforce it was not really in the best political interests of the government of the day.   The result is obvious: koala populations are still in dramatic decline, particularly in south east Queensland.  

The koala populations of the Darling Downs and brigalow belt out west were dealt their final blow with Peter Beattie's announcement of the impending "ban" on broad-scale land-clearing.  He gave landholders nearly three years notice of the intention of the Vegetation Management Act to regulate the clearing of remnant vegetation.  So they got busy.  D9s dragging massive chains worked around the clock clearing land as fast as the machinery could go.  Very few animals survive this brutal and destructive process -- those that do are generally fatally maimed and die slow deaths from their injuries, dehydration and starvation.   The 100,000 or so koalas that once lived in these areas were not immune.  A few still hang on in remnants of habitat, but their days are numbered -- the population so sparse and scattered that it cannot maintain itself.

The ecological term for the point of no return is "the tipping point".  Even though koalas are still relatively widespread in distribution, many of the remaining populations are small, isolated and have passed their tipping points -- they are doomed to extirpation (localised extinction). 
Unfortunately tipping points are hard to predict and slip by unnoticed by us, the stewards of the land: the tragic and inevitable consequences may not manifest sometimes for years. 

As if loss of habitat, plummeting numbers and political indifference (or even malevolence) were not enough, koalas are not a healthy bunch either.  We've known for years of their susceptibility to chlamydial infection, the bacterial scourge that causes blindness, infertility and urinary infections.  The recent discovery of an even more sinister and devastating bug, the koala retrovirus, seems just too much for the poor things to bear.  This AIDS-like virus causes leukaemia, cancer and immunodeficiency syndromes at levels tens of times higher than in the human population.  It probably makes koalas much more susceptible to severe chlamydial disease as well.  

As it has done with the other major threats to koala survival, the Queensland Government has treated this discovery with indifference and inaction.  Unlike the Tasmanian government, that has spent over $1 million researching facial tumour disease in Tassie devils, our State government has spent nothing.

Why do our governments care so little about the issues facing our wildlife? Why is it that one of the world's most critically endangered mammals, the northern hairy-nosed wombat, found only in Queensland, has had so little money spent on its recovery that it is just plain embarrassing?  Why is it that when the koala is racing towards extinction, our state and federal governments react by putting up a smoke screen of rhetoric and feigned concern without any intention of meaningful action? The answer is:  I just don't know, and I just don't understand.  All I know is that our descendents, our grandchildren and theirs, will never forgive our inaction at the very time in history when we knew what we were doing, knew the consequences, knew the simple solutions, but failed to act. 

--Bob Irwin

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