The head of the Australian Koala Foundation, Deborah Tabart, says she is optimistic after the second Senate inquiry hearing into the status, health, and sustainability of the koala.
“I am feeling very confident that things are going well,” Tabart said after the hearing on May 19 in Canberra.
“I can see that the committee members are really listening, and they seem very concerned about the plight of the koala. That has to be a good start.”
“I could see that the Senators, with fresh eyes, were unpicking some of the real issues and, better still, articulating them.
“One Senator seemed to understand very clearly that the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) has not been able to recommend listing the koala because the confines of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act are too narrow. He made the point that ‘the minister cannot just wake up and protect the koalas without the proper advice’.”
Tabart says she is taking legal advice, but is pretty confident the minister does have power under the “precautionary approach” of the Act to protect the koala right now.
Those calling for koala protection face the resistance of property developers and miners. One Queensland property developer claimed during the Canberra hearing that the industry faced losing competitive advantage if koalas were protected. He claimed home owners would bear the brunt of higher building costs.
The koala foundation counters this and says the koala is critical to Australia’s economy, generating about $1billion of tourism income each year.
Tabart is concerned that the official response to the declining koala population will be to throw funds at research and the development of vaccines while avoiding the crucial action of listing the koala as vulnerable and protecting the remaining koala habitat.
At the first hearing in Brisbane, senators heard about the effects of widespread chlamydia infection among koalas, and the koala retrovirus, which leaves infected animals more susceptible to disease and cancers.
“The easy way out is for the government to pump funds into research to make it appear as if they are doing something, but why find vaccines if there is no habitat left for koalas to live in?” Tabart says.
“A cure for these diseases is very important, but there should be no more research until the simple act of listing the koala as vulnerable, and protecting 50 tree species, occurs.”
The AKF wants the federal government to list the koala as vulnerable under the EPBC Act, and to pass legislation that truly protects the creatures’ habitat.
In her submission to the inquiry, Tabart said the AKF wanted the committee to get to the root cause of the koalas’ plight. “Very simply, if koala trees were not destroyed, koalas would not suffer starvation, they would not be ripped apart by dogs and killed by motor vehicles, and the disease rates would be less. Protection of the 50 tree species in our submission is imperative if the koala is to survive and thrive.”
She said the AKF maintained and believed strongly that there were no more than 85,000 and more likely closer to 45,000 koalas left in Australia.
“My preference would be for a specific National Koala Act and maybe this could come from these hearings,” Tabart says.