Ecologist at NSW koala conference says beloved animals on ‘slippery slope to extinction’ – ABC

By October 29, 2022 News

ABC Coffs Coast / By Indiana Hansen and Laurise Dickson
29 Oct 2022

The conference attendees hope to build pressure ahead of the 2023 NSW election. (Supplied: Taronga Zoo)

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As Australia’s koala populations continue to decline concerns are growing over how little has been done to protect the endangered species.

Key points:
• There are hopes that the conference will help to make koala conservation an election issue in the state
• Gumbaynggirr man Nathan Brennan says Indigenous voices should be elevated to ensure koala survival
• Conference convenor Catherine Cusack says policy solutions are crucial ahead of the 2023 poll

The issue of conservation was in the spotlight at a koala conference in Coffs Harbour today ahead of the upcoming New South Wales election in March 2023.

Specialist koala ecologist Steve Phillips was one of many speakers at the event calling for urgent action.

He said he had attended many koala forums over the past 40 years, but hoped today’s event would mark a turning point for the “fluffy national icon”.
“The greater part of the [koala] populations are on this slippery slope to extinction and that is what we should be focusing on,” Dr Phillips said.
“I hope this doesn’t sound cynical — I get sick to death of hearing people blathering on about what’s wrong … while nothing is happening to reverse [it].”

Dr Phillips says koalas are at risk across the state and country. (ABC Coffs Coast: Indiana Hansen)

Dr Phillips said changing this trajectory and overcoming the koala’s “spectacular rate of decline” would be no small feat but he was optimistic about the impact of the conference.
“There’s a lot of momentum,” he said.
“There is a lot of people wanting a lot of change.”

Gumbaynggirr man Nathan Brennan says saving koalas is wrapped up in culture revitalisation. (ABC Coffs Coast: Indiana Hansen)

‘Not just about koala conservation’

Proud Gumbaynggirr man Nathan Brennan, who spoke at the conference, said it was important to not focus exclusively on western science.

“[Aboriginal led conservation] has been a successful framework that has looked after this country for a very long time,” Mr Brennan said.
“A lot of our cultural practice is based around sustainability and looking after country.
“It would be really silly to think we can’t learn something from that.”

Dr Phillips said koala populations were struggling prior to Australia’s 2019-2020 bushfires, which took a huge toll on the species. (AAP: David Mariuz)

Mr Brennan highlighted the Gumbaynggirr Good Koala Country Plan, which was developed during many workshops by Gumbaynggirr people on the Mid North Coast of NSW.
“[This plan] identifies our priorities and what we want to achieve as First Nations people as part of conservation and land management,” he said.
“For me, it is not just about koala conservation.
“It is about making sure our culture lives on.”

Catherine Cusack says policy changes are crucial if the species is to be saved. (ABC Coffs Coast: Indiana Hansen)

Election ‘seen as the last chance’
North Coast-based conference convenor and former liberal MLC Catherine Cusack said collective action was the last line of defence.
“If we don’t do something urgently about saving koala habitats in particular, we are going to lose these beautiful creatures,” she said.
Ms Cusack said she had continued to fight for koalas beyond her time in parliament.
“I’m now using this time and opportunity to call on citizens to band together,” she said.

About 180 people attended the conference in person and more than 180 registered to watch online. (ABC Coffs Coast: Indiana Hansen)

Ms Cusack said the conference was timed ahead of the 2023 state election to put the issue front of mind.
“The major parties are formalising their policies and so this conference is an effort by us to get koalas up there on the radar,” she said.
“We’ve had the parliamentary report into koalas that says they are on track for extinction in 2050 if we don’t alter our policies.”

Ms Cusack said she would like the state government to stop funding and subsidising the timber industry as well as stronger protection for native forestry.
“This election is really seen as the last chance to make those policy improvements,” she said.

The koala’s endangered status is a hot topic among conservationists months out from the NSW election. (Supplied: WWF)

Politicians enter the conversation
A mix of politicians attended the koala conference, including NSW shadow environment minister Penny Sharpe, who said the next government would have an opportunity to save the endangered animal.
“We know we need to protect koala habitat and make sure all the money going towards koalas is looking towards recovery,” she said.
She said working with landowners and public agencies was crucial.
“If we are going to save koalas, everyone needs to be working in the same direction,” she said.

A spokesperson for NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said the minister was unable to attend the conference due to a prior commitment, but instead provided a pre-recorded video message to “highlight the importance of koala conservation”.

In a statement to the ABC, the spokesperson said Mr Griffin and the NSW government were committed to doubling koala numbers by 2050, as per the state’s Koala Strategy released in April.
“This strategy will better secure 10 climate-resilient koala stronghold locations from the Southern Tablelands to Campbelltown and Lismore,” the spokesperson said.