Posted 30 Jan 2020, 6:00am
An ecologist with 30 years experience says “it will take a bold government” to implement the reforms needed to prevent south-east Queensland’s koala population from extinction.
- The draft proposal aims to preserve 570,000 hectares of ‘koala priority areas’ in south-east Queensland
- Ecologists warn changes to planning provisions for new urban developments must also be considered
- Concerns have been raised that some coastal koala habitats have been excluded from the proposal as bushfires add pressure to dwindling populations
Public consultation for the State Government’s Draft South East Queensland Koala Conservation Strategy comes to a close on January 31, with 570,000 hectares of ‘priority area’ proposed to be locked off to new developments.
While University of Queensland ecologist John Callaghan has welcomed the move to protect koala habitats, he said the draft strategy “still has some way to go”.
“My biggest concern is that the draft needs to trigger significant changes in the planning framework and the regulations that go along with those in terms of how developments are assessed and designed,” he said.
“It’s time for us to have a real shift in, almost a reversal, in the way we think about how we develop the land.”
Almost three-quarters of habitat has been cleared since 1960, with the koala population in south-east Queensland declining by up to 80 per cent in the past two decades.
Around 30 per cent of koala habitats nationwide have been destroyed in recent bushfires.
‘Tragedy’ if conservation fails
Mr Callaghan said south-east Queensland has a nationally significant koala population but is “also a hub of human activity and growth”.
“We’ve got to find new ways of combing those two,” he said.
“We can’t just allow our future development process to continue because if we do we won’t have koalas perhaps within our generation.”
Mr Callaghan said he has submitted feedback for the draft’s consultation, raising concerns that pockets of koalas in developed, coastal areas which “warrant high levels of protection” may have been excluded from priority areas.
“They’re the most challenging in many ways to actually be able to protect,” he said.
“Those pockets can be missed, even though they can support some of the highest density koala populations that we have in coastal areas.”
He said the State Government’s mapping of koala priority areas must not only include these coastal pockets, but also ensure future developments will not come at the detriment of these koalas.
“It’s difficult to say when they could be lost, but most certainly we’re on the cusp,” he said.
“If we don’t put in measures that are truly visionary — really forward-thinking and really change the way we approach protection of a species like koalas — it’ll be a tragedy.
“It will take a bold government to be able to do that.”
Bushfire crisis heightens need
Gold Coast wildlife vet Claire Madden said the “sheer number” of koalas injured or displaced by bushfires has been “incredibly confronting”.
She spent a week caring for koalas impacted by bushfires in South Australia’s Adelaide Hills over the new year period.
“On day one there was over 100 koalas that were hospitalised in this school gymnasium,” Dr Madden said.
“It was probably the hardest week of my career. A week I’ll never forget for all the wrong reasons.”
She said future conservation efforts must take into account traditional threats like disease, but also habitat loss caused by large-scale fire events.
“Our koala numbers were already threatened because of some infectious diseases that we know are out there,” she said.
“Already we knew that healthy koala populations were dwindling, but they are being demised even further.”
Genome program misses out on federal funding
Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation has collaborated with the University of Queensland and Queensland University of Technology to establish the Living Koala Genome Bank project.
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The project captures wild koalas, maps their genetic information, treats diseases like chlamydia, and breeds them with captive females before releasing the genetically diverse offspring into the wild.
“For a better word, this is where we use Tinder for match-making the best koalas,” the foundation’s general manager Al Mucci said.
“We’ve proven that it can be used and it’s a success to genetic manage populations and get them clean, vaccinated, and back into the wild.”
He said the small pockets of south-east Queensland’s koalas increase the risk of inbreeding and disease.
The pilot program ends in February, but Mr Mucci said he was hopeful of receiving funding through the Federal Government’s $50 million emergency fund for bushfire-affected wildlife.
“We had over 800,000 hectares burnt, if not more. That’s over 130 million animals,” he said.
As for the State Government draft strategy, Al Mucci said “it probably needs a bit more detail particularly on the Gold Coast”, but that it was still early days.
“There’s still areas of open land that could be turned into koala land,” he said.
“There’s a range of planning principles that you could use to offset … smaller fragmented communities so that we don’t lose them.”