of habitat through urban development threatens the future of koalas,
and governments don't seem to care, ROSSLYN BEEBY reports.In the past five years, more than 25,000 koalas have died in Queensland. Break
down that figure with a series of divisions, and that's a mortality
rate of 5000 a year, just over 400 a month and more than 100 animals
studying these iconic Australian marsupials despairingly refer
to a "koala conservation crisis".
are critical of the lack of action by state and federal governments
to fast-track reforms to protect koala habitat from destruction
by urban development - particularly in coastal NSW and Queensland.
Australian Koala Foundation chief executive
Deborah Tabart has read veterinary post-mortem reports on 700
recent koala deaths in south-east Queensland.
The picture that emerges is one of "shocking
neglect and dangerous complacency about the future survival
of such a cultural icon", she says. Most of the koalas
in those reports starved to death. That was certainly the case
in Redland Shire, where they are clearing trees and hammering
through cheap housing developments. Out of those 700 deaths,
there were only 20 due to injuries from dog attacks. That shows
community education is working. "But state and federal
government conservation laws are failing the koala."
Running to only 15 pages (12 pages,
if you subtract title and content pages and the final list of
acknowledgments), the Federal Government's "National Koala
Conservation Strategy" is a surprisingly slim document
given the range of threats to the species. This grim litany
includes climate change, loss of habitat and food trees, road
kill, dog attacks, illegal shooting and a gamut of diseases
that cause sterility, cancer, blindness and the collapse of
the immune system.
Recent research has shown climate
change is altering the chemistry of eucalypts, stripping the
nutrients koalas rely on and increasing the level of toxins.
Senior Research Fellow at the
Centre for Environmental Management at Central Queensland University,
Dr Alistair Melzer, says drought and heat can also take a deadly
toll. "Koalas live in a narrow metabolic balance between
keeping cool, finding enough water in their diet and suffering
from heat exhaustion.
They use habitat in a complex
way, and they choose particular trees as shade trees,
to keep cool. Combine the loss of these shade trees with
a decline in the suitability of food trees, and the koala
is in real strife. The issue of koala habitat is such
a big area of research and we've barely scratched the
surface." Koalas in coastal NSW have been diagnosed
with an infectious fungal disease of the nasal cavity,
called cryptococcosis. Its causes are not yet known, but
could be linked to changes in temperature and humidity
that favour the spread of this fatal infection.
Other disease threats include
Chlamydia, a pathogen that causes infertility and blindness
in koalas, and an AIDS-like virus which weakens the immune system.
Known as koala retrovirus, it's been linked to 80 per cent of
koala deaths in Queensland zoos, causing leukaemia, lymphoma,
malignant tumours and immune deficiency disorders. Australian
Wildlife Hospital research director Jon Hanger genetically sequenced
the retrovirus in 1999, and has warned it could wipe out koalas
in south-east Queensland within 15 years. "We're seeing
a 100per cent infection rate in the populations we're studying.
On those figures, it should be considered a disease epidemic."
But state and federal governments have failed to understand
the severity and impact of this fatal virus and are relying
on "antiquated legislation" to conserve Australia's
koalas, he says. "The National Koala Conservation Strategy
is basically just a list of management objectives. It doesn't
address the science of conservation such as genetics or ecology,
or the welfare issues relating to loss of habitat or rehabilitation
of injured animals." So it should be good news that the
strategy, which was written in 1998, is currently being reviewed.
The Federal Government has awarded a $64,000 contract to the
Australian office of global development consultants Parsons
Brinkerhoff to "undertake an evaluation of the strategy".
According to the Department of
Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts website, the aim of
this "initial evaluation" is not to rewrite the strategy
but to "inform" further discussion by a ministerial
council taskforce. Deborah Tabart has raised the question of
whether it's appropriate to have a commercial company - whose
website describes them as "a leader in the development
and operation of infrastructure" – gathering information
to inform a national conservation strategy for an icon species
threatened by loss of habitat from urban development.
"I would have thought there
possibility of conflict of interest. This is a major developer
that has been involved in large-scale infrastructure programs
across Australia, some of which involved state governments,
" she says. A departmental spokeswoman said the company
was chosen "because they have the expertise to pull together
a vast amount of information in a short time". Asked why
the Federal Government didn't appoint a group of eminent scientists
to oversee this stage of the review, the spokeswoman replied,
"Such a group would have been welcome to tender for the
job but they didn't."
Rolf Schlagloth, a conservation
biologist who works as a community liaison officer with the
Australian Koala Foundation, has achieved a rare success in
protecting koala habitat from development. A former economist
from Germany, he has spent the past six years developing a koala
management plan with the city of Ballarat in central Victoria.
Ballarat is now the first council in Australia to adopt a koala
management plan, mapping and analysing 2500 areas of native
vegetation in the region. "We now know what we have to
work with, and what we have to protect. We know where the houses
shouldn't go, if we want to keep our koalas," he says.
Local, state and federal governments need to work together to
develop tax incentives and laws to ensure koala habitat is protected
from urban development. Major forest revegetation campaigns
are also needed to restore habitat. "We are already at
a stage where koalas are disappearing and local extinctions
are occurring because of continuing loss of habitat, stress
and disease. It's a red alert situation but governments aren't
getting the message," he says. STARVING: Koalas
in Queensland are dying at the rate of 100 a week. Many are
starving to death.
38707538 Brief: CQLDU Copyright
Agency Limited (CAL) licensed copy Canberra Times Saturday 12/7/2008
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