Greens Senator Larissa Waters at a press conference with a koala called Winston.
Greens Senator Larissa Waters at a press conference with a koala called Winston. Samuel Cardwell

Destroying an Aussie wildlife icon

YOU can hear the little fella long before you see him: a faint whimper mixes with ragged breathing in the pre-dawn chill.

Urgent footsteps add a cautious note to the sad symphony with twigs breaking underfoot and leaves rustling as rescuers make their way to the crumpled heap of fur at the base of a gnarly scribbly gum shaped by time.

The sun raises its brow on the horizon, perhaps in disbelief.

The light is soft but its beauty unable to disguise the look of terror and pain on the small grey face.

A green B-double thunders by, so close that the breeze it leaves in its wake rustles my hair.

To my left just beyond a trickling creek, the roofs of hundreds of new homes start to take shape, a noisy garbage truck no doubt stirring the neighbourhood from slumber.

An arm's reach away, the koala offers just a slight shudder as capable hands close around him.

The tender rough voice that offers comfort during a quick examination breaks ever so slightly as it greets an old friend.

Buddy Franklin, a five-year-old male, has been in trouble before.

A year ago, he was rescued from a suburban pool; six months before that, he was lucky to survive a brief encounter with a staffy dog. Today, he may not be so lucky.

Oozing eyes and a stained bottom are the most obvious signs his body is riddled with disease.

One look at the stony faces around me and the question of his chances of survival is strangled in my throat.

Buddy's rescue is just one in a week when callouts encompassed a range of dog attacks, vehicle accidents, fire and a koala stuck in a garden shed.

"We are right in the middle of koala season," says Murray Chambers who, with his twin brother Ray, runs Sunshine Coast Koala Rescue.

"So the koalas are on the move looking for partners, and roaming often leads to accidents as they try to cross backyards and roads.

"These last few weeks, we have had a busy run but it's probably much lower than, say, four years ago.

There's not that many koalas left to rescue."

While data is patchy, figures point to a 63% decline in the koala population in south-east Queensland in the past decade.

On the Koala Coast, an area that spans three local government authorities 20km south-east of Brisbane and regarded nationally as one of the most significant koala populations because of its size and genetic structure, numbers have dropped from 6000 in 1999 to fewer than 2000 when the last survey was done in 2008.

Those working to save the koala put the latest figure at less than 500.

The Pine Rivers District to the north of the Koala Coast has had a 45% drop in numbers, while the mulga lands, where western Queensland meets NSW, fewer than 10,000 koalas exist in an area home to seven-times that number in the 1990s.

Noosa National Park, a nature-lover's paradise, had 1000 koalas in 2000.

Now there are two and even they haven't been spotted for a while.

The story is the same for koala habitats in northern New South Wales where 10,000 animals have been lost in the past 10 years.

In places such as Iluka, they have disappeared completely and even in Gunnedah, the self-proclaimed koala capital of the world, where it seemed they had stemmed the tide through innovative practices, numbers are dropping.

The story is not any rosier in the nation's capital where already-small numbers are dwindling into non-existence and while Victoria and South Australia report an over-abundance in some areas, their problem is one of in-breeding and genetic mutation with most of their koalas descended from a small number on French Island.

Clearly this downward spiral is alarming. If it is not ringing any bells with you, then it should.

We are faced with the very real possibility that an Australian icon, one that brings in $1.1 billion in tourist revenue, is facing extinction. On our watch.

Government departments and koala experts point to urbanisation, deaths on roads and rail, dog attacks and disease as the major reasons for the decline.

Between 1997 and May last year, 4800 koalas were killed by motor vehicles and 1419 attacked by dogs, of which 1144 died.

An additional 5757 deaths were attributed to a combination of disease, cars and dogs.

Illnesses such as chlamydia, bone marrow disorder, cancer and immunosuppression are claiming their share of koalas, too.

Koala scientists and vets say that environmental stresses are exacerbating the problem and as it stands, about 63% of the population has the sexually transmitted chlamydia which can result in sterility if not treated and a slow, painful death.

"Development is clearly at the root of the problem," Murray says.

"Look at the North Lakes, Morayfield, Mango Hill area. Ten years ago, that was prime koala habitat. But now what koalas are left have been pushed into small pockets with a few trees. And that's where the trouble starts. They still try to roam in their home range which can be about 3km, but now they have to cross backyards with dogs and busy roads.

"You have koalas next to an eight-lane highway. You have to move pretty fast to beat a car going at 100kmh and these guys can't. When we rescue them and want to put them back, there is nowhere to take them to.

"Out west, you'll find koalas in beautiful 100-year-old food trees right next to a busy highway. There's a few trees, a farm fence and then just rolling hills as far as the eye can see. We had clearing laws come in a few years ago.

"What happened with that? We need to get farmers to change their attitude about clearing and burning. They are destroying food sources out there when they should be replanting.

"It's the same thing with mining.

"They are clearing hundreds of acres out there. I just saw a picture of an area that has been cleared with one tree left in the middle because it had a koala in it. What is the future for that guy? There is nothing for 20km. When he comes down, they'll chop that down, too."

In fast-growing Queensland, the push for development and mining is like an insatiable giant.

After all, the state coffers and thousands of jobs depend on it.

As a result, projects such as the East Coomera town centre on the Gold Coast, the Moreton Bay Rail Link and multi-million-dollar housing developments in Maryborough - all pushing their way through prime koala habitat - will forge ahead.

Koalas have been listed as threatened on Queensland's vulnerable list since 2003 but the Nature Conservation Act that polices that legislation does little except stop you from shooting koalas.

Now, the Federal Government has finally bowed to pressure from the Greens, who are hoping to introduce their Koala Protection Bill through the Senate later this year, and placed the koala on the vulnerable list, meaning that major developments will have to get Canberra's nod of approval.

"The only reason we have had to intervene at all is the states on their own have allowed numbers to continue to go into free fall," Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke said.

Those on the ground, doing the research and finding and patching up sick and dying koalas are of the opinion that "vulnerable" is simply not far enough.

"Put them on the endangered list," Murray says.

"That's what they are.

"At least then we will be forced to protect their habitat and they will have a little bit of a chance."

But in a cruel Catch 22, the Threatened Species Scientific Committee that recommended the "vulnerable" status won't go further because the data available for assessment is patchy and incomplete.

Extensive studies that will definitively detail koala numbers take considerable amounts of money - money, as it happens, that would be available if koalas were on the endangered list.

And in another twist of fate, perhaps the hammer blow, by March next year the Government is planning to return federal environmental responsibilities to the states, including the protection of threatened species.     

So in effect, the only authority we will have to protect the koala is the very same one that has pushed them to the brink.


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