The plight of NSW koalas

By Angela Heathcote 13 August 2018
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The number of koalas in NSW is plummeting because of road collisions, dog attacks and land clearing.

VICKII LETT HAS been rescuing and caring for New South Wales koalas for the past 10 years. But it was only last week that she came across the worst case she’d ever seen.

Vickii was called to a home in Waterview Heights in Grafton, where a family had discovered a five-year-old female koala in their backyard.

“She was grinding her teeth and growling, but she had no external injuries. She was quite thin but it was still difficult to tell exactly what was wrong with her,” Vickii says.

When Vickii took her to the nearby koala hospital the decision was made to euthanise her. After a necropsy was performed, the vet discovered “horrific” cysts that had ruptured, causing her extreme pain.

“She was in the prime of her life, and breeding season is just about to begin. Given that koalas are under threat in NSW breeding females like her are so important.”

Vickii is on the frontline of what many conservationist have labelled a crisis for NSW koalas. “When I first started rescuing koalas a decade ago, most of the koalas around the Hawkesbury didn’t have chlamydia, and now we routinely treat them for the disease,” she says.

“It’s just heartbreaking. Their immune systems are reacting to the stress the koalas have from habitat loss, but we have no reason to believe that the destruction of their habitat will stop anytime soon.”

Koala populations under threat in NSW

It’s hard to believe that one of Australia’s most iconic animals, the koala – once abundant along the east coast of Australia – now live in small, fragmented populations.

That these fluffy marsupials prefer the same fertile land, dotted with tall, mature trees eyed by developers and the agricultural industry remains the biggest source of tension.

Oisin Sweeney, the senior ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) says that koala populations in NSW are under 20, 0000, a tiny fraction of what they once were.

“Almost every koala population in NSW is believed to be in decline and, on the north coast, koala numbers are estimated to have fallen by 50 per cent in just the last 20 years,” he tells Australian Geographic.

However, the percentage of koala declines in NSW changes according to who you ask. Koala expert Mathew Crowther says this is because there’s no real clarity around the figure. “I’ve tried to quantify it but only from small areas, like on some properties on the Liverpool Plains, and even then, the estimates are rough. There was 20 to 30 per cent decline in that area over last few years,” Mathew says.

“There are a lot of papers based on expert opinion, but again, it’s based on opinion. They’ve certainly declined but the declines aren’t consistent. For example, in Campbelltown, numbers appeared to have increased, but on the north coast they’ve declined.”

Government intervention

In May this year, Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a $45 million package for koala conservation, in which 25,000 ha of koala habitat would be protected.  

But the NPA maintains this isn’t enough. They say the lack of meaningful action and enforcement of protective legislation is of great concern.

According to the NPA,  the Regional Forestry Agreement (RFA) – which says that proposals to log in public forests don’t require the usual approvals under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act – has devastated koala habitats over the past two decades. Enough so, that in 2016, 30 environmental groups demanded the agreement not be renewed after it was set to expire in 2017, arguing its renewal “would constitute an irrational decision on environmental, economic and social grounds”.

The renewal of the RFA in NSW was one aspect of a set of new controversial biodiversity laws introduced by the Government in 2016, which included a relaxation of land clearing laws on private land, which green groups argue will result in the destruction of key habitats and an increase in carbon emissions.

Weakening these laws, Mathew says, was a “horrible idea”.

“There’s nothing good that can be said about that. “Private land is often perfect koala habitat. It has good old trees and is well positioned.

“Clearing on private properties can be disastrous, any weakening of laws is a bad investment in biodiversity, no matter what offsetting you do.”

The proposal for the Great Koala National Park

Since 2015, the NPA has been campaigning for the establishment of the Great Koala National Park (GKNP), and have since ramped up its efforts following the new biodiversity laws.

The GKNP would see 175,000 ha of public forests added to existing protected areas to form a 315,000 ha park centred on Bellingen, but would encompass areas from Coffs Harbour through to Kempsey.

“With the recent changes to land clearing legislation making it easier to clear koala habitat on private land, it’s more important than ever that koala habitat on public land is protected,” the NPA’s Oisin Sweeney says.

Two ‘meta-populations’ of koalas (smaller groups that periodically exchange individuals) currently reside within the 35,000 ha, increasing the value of the park.

Vickii likes the idea of the GKNP, but she’d also like to see projects aimed at regeneration and revegetation. She adds that considering koalas, not just along the coast, but west of the ranges is important, and Mathew agrees. He says that while the GKNP will protect koalas and other animals in the “higher country” by linking up national parks and state forests where they already exist, a bigger impact will be made by protecting the fertile valleys of the lower parts of the state which are more “palatable” to koalas.

Vickii believes that community plays a key role in this process. “We know that politicians react to the community so if we stand up and say ‘this isn’t acceptable’ we have a real chance at achieving better outcomes for NSW koalas,” she says.

As a wildlife carer, she wants to feel confident that when she releases an animal to the wild following rehabilitation, it will actually have a good chance at survival. “It’s hard to put them back because at the moment, their chances are just so slim.”