'Yesterday the Federal Environment Minister, Anna Rose, reported to a silent Parliament in Canberra that, since there have been no koala sightings in the wild for the last 18 years, her Department had reluctantly revised the animal's conservation status to EW – extinct in the wild. She added that numbers in wildlife sanctuaries in Queensland and Victoria had failed to recover significantly in the last five years, and that breeding and translocation programmes had been largely unsuccessful.'Did you see Four Corners: Koala Crunch Time last night? If you did, how long do you think it will be before you're reading something like the above on the ABC or in The Age? Twenty years? Fifty years? What did you think as you watched the programme? It can't have come as a complete surprise to you to learn of diving koala populations, in Southeast Queensland in particular, where there is an insatiable demand, still, for development, and apparently at any cost.
I last wrote about koalas nearly a year ago (see Koala alert, September 2011). I've been back to Noosa National Park several times since I last saw a koala in the wild, in February 2011. By August of that year, the park information office said they hadn't seen any koalas for a couple of months. There was better news a couple of weeks ago, a year on, although we didn't spot any on our walk to Hell's Gates. Our visitors had to content themselves with the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary at Fig Tree Pocket in Brisbane, which never fails to impress, but you can't beat seeing a koala sitting in a gum tree in the bush.
Last night's programme started in Coomera, at the northern end of, and inland from, the Gold Coast. Here a rural/rural residential area has been transformed into a new 'satellite growth suburb'. In 2006-07, the Gold Coast City Council estimated there were 500 koalas in the koala habitat of East Coomera, about 3640 hectares, and acknowledged that the proposed development would pose a serious threat to them. The Council's conservation project currently involves the 'translocation' of about 200 animals to a reserve in nearby Pimpana.
Coomera is just part of the story of the catastrophic fall in koala numbers in Southeast Queensland. Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke put the koalas of Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory on the endangered species list back in April of this year following a recommendation by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee. They had calculated that between 1990 and 2010 the number of koalas in New South Wales had reduced by a third, and in Queensland by as much as 43 per cent. The Koala Coast Koala Population Report for the Queensland Government made even grimmer reading: between 1999 and 2010 koala numbers plummeted from 6000 to 2000. While in the Mulga Lands bioregion straddling the QLD-NSW border further inland, the population crashed by 85 per cent between 1995 and 2009.
You surely don't need any more evidence? My own experience – no koalas seen in Burleigh Head National Park in at least two years – suggests to me that Queensland, and other eastern states, face a very stark choice. If, my Australian friends, you want to save your cutest iconic symbol, you have to stop the destruction of its habitat. NOW. Endless development – and the clearing of land for mining and infrastructure is, obviously, just as devastating – means more roads, more koalas killed and injured by traffic, and more pet dogs attacking and maiming them. It also means starvation and greater susceptibility to stress and disease.
You have to ask yourselves, does the Gold Coast really need to spread further inland into a satellite suburb? And at what cost? You can't continue to delude yourselves that you can protect wildlife while building endless residential developments and leisure facilities and shopping malls and roads. Let your government at all levels know that the time for prevarication and kowtowing to developers has to end. You can't build here because these gum trees are protected in a koala reserve. And no, we can't move them out of the way. Go and build someplace else. Sorry we said a few years back that it was OK: in fact, it's not, so here are a few thousand dollars compensation for your trouble. Governments CAN do this if it is the will of the people.
Watching Koala Crunch Time made me very angry; possibly angrier than I've been since I got here. And deeply upset. See for yourselves at http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/stories/2012/08/16/
John Callaghan, Koala Conservation Manager for the Gold Coast City Council, looked distraught as he released 'Nita' back into a tree, a huge tracking collar around her neck. She cried pitifully as she climbed the tree and I thought he would cry, too. If ever there was a man whose heart was not in his work, it was this one. I'd never heard a koala make a sound like that and I hope I never hear it again.
I am reminded of the 'tragic tale of the Tasmanian Tiger'*. Will we ever learn?
* See Tasmania: the beautiful and damned, May 2012
This post was last edited on 2 October 2012