The announcement came in a manner Australians expect in election years, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison snuggling up to a furry marsupial while pledging record investments.
This time, the Australian government’s plan was to spend $50 million to improve the protection and recovery of one of the nation’s most beloved animals, the koala.
50 million for a single species is certainly significant, especially when you think about it $10 million in grants is to be shared between 100 animals and plants that the government identified as priorities in a new strategy for endangered species last year.
But whether it makes a difference to turn the tide of an animal—this is a New South Wales parliamentary question found could be extinct in this state by 2050 — could depend on several outstanding policies and decisions set to be settled in 2022.
“Money alone is not the issue to save the koala,” says Alexia Wellbelove, senior campaign manager at Humane Society International (HSI).
“You need a strong conservation framework.”
“Plug Holes in a Sinking Ship”
Much has been said about koalas’ recovery since bushfires in Australia’s black summer fires burned 20 million hectares of land in 2019.
Already a prominent species in conservation organizations’ campaigns for greater environmental protection, the koala’s plight has been met with renewed urgency after images of burned and starving animals were seen around the world.
HSI, WWF Australia and the International Fund for Animal Welfare argue that the combined impact of multiple, ongoing threats – global warming, disease and habitat destruction – mean the species is on an accelerated path to extinction.
They submitted nomination to the federal government, urging them to urgently review the koala populations of Queensland, NSW and the Australian Capital Territory for improved listing under national environmental laws.
The koala, which has been listed as “Vulnerable” since 2012, now requires the more serious status of “Vulnerable” as population numbers and habitat continue to decline, they said.
They also called on the Morrison government to finally develop a recovery plan, which has been identified under national law as a requirement for the species since 2012, but which successive Australian governments have Delivery failed.
The nomination was accepted for review and the Scientific Committee on Threatened Species – an independent body that advises the government on conservation listings – presented its recommendation that the koala be officially listed as endangered to German Environment Minister Sussan Ley late last year.
Around the same time, Ley was presented with a final version of a proposed recovery plan for ministerial approval.
Unlike some former ministers im Portfolio hat Law shown willingness the acceptance of the deadlines and recommendations of the scientific panel and its decision on the hazard listing – which must be made by mid-March – is expected shortly.
A spokeswoman said Ley is considering the committee’s advice and will make her decision in accordance with her legal obligations. They said the minister is reviewing the final draft of the recovery plan at the same time.
IFAW Regional Director Rebecca Keeble says patience has run out among conservationists nearly 10 years after a national strategy to save the koala came to an end.
“We need to understand what the strategy is to save this species and what it’s going to cost, because $50 million is just a drop in the ocean,” she says.
“Without addressing the root cause of their decline, which is habitat loss and climate change, we are just plugging holes in a sinking ship.”
‘No new steps’ to protect koalas
Australian governments at all levels have recognized that the koala’s trajectory needs to change.
However, habitat destruction for the koalas continues and development in key areas such as Campbelltown in south-west Sydney continues to be approved.
Former NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said he wanted to double the number of koalas in the state by 2050, shortly after a parliamentary inquiry found they were an endangered species.
He also announced last year that the government would do so Spend $193 million participated in a nationwide plan to protect koalas over a five-year period.
But that plan, known as the NSW Koala Strategy, is still pending, although an earlier strategy expired in mid-2021.
Promised new codes for land management and private indigenous forestry and an updated planning guideline for koalas are also pending, nearly 18 months after management of koala habitat nearly split the NSW coalition.
The guidelines are all issues to be resolved this year by a new ministerial team of Environment Minister James Griffin, Agriculture Secretary Dugald Saunders and Deputy Prime Minister Paul Toole.
“The NSW government has taken no real steps to protect koala habitat,” says Jacqui Mumford, acting chief executive of NSW’s Nature Conservation Council.
Last year the council brought together a group of zookeepers who called on the Perrottet government to step up habitat protection to reduce the number of animals ending up in hospitals, sometimes for repeat visits.
“What we really want to see is the release of the long overdue Koala strategy,” says Jacqui.
A spokesman for Griffin said detailed goals for koala populations and spending would be part of a new koala strategy, but didn’t give a date for its release.
They said the government was also “reviewing PNF (private native forestry) codes of conduct to ensure robust protection for koalas.”
“A lot more” required for all species
The $50 million announced by the Morrison government last week includes $20 million for health and habitat conservation projects, $10 million for community activities such as habitat restoration, $2 million to improve koala health , $1 million for koala care and treatment, and $10 million for a national koala surveillance program.
This monitoring program is an extension of a koala audit announced in 2020 with initial funding of $2 million.
The surveys for this koala census have been delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions and lockdowns and the government handed over running the program to CSIRO last year.
It expects the review to be completed by the end of 2022.
But overarching protections not just for koalas but for all Australian wildlife at the national level have yet to be resolved.
A 2020 decennial review of federal environmental laws by former Competition Commissioner Graeme Samuel found that successive Australian governments had failed comprehensively in their duty to protect Australia’s environment.
Samuel made 38 recommendations to amend the law, including a proposal for new national environmental standards that require clear outcomes for Australia’s plants and animals.
The government has never acted on any of these recommendations, but has instead drafted a bill that would limit its role in environmental decision-making by allowing state governments to delegate decisions under national law — that bill is stalled in the Senate devices.
A draft set of national standards proposed by the government last year does not include the enhanced safeguards Samuel had in mind.
“If we had really good national environmental standards that focused on environmental outcomes, we could actually prevent koala habitat destruction,” says Wellbelove.
Jess Abrahams, national conservationist at the Australian Conservation Foundation, says the $50 million is welcome and a sign the government understands koala decline is a serious problem for the Australian public.
But he says the task for all of Australia’s threatened wildlife is much greater.
In December the International Union for Conservation of Nature Added 124 new Australians entries Red List of Threatened Species, including spiders and insects on Kangaroo Island, which have been badly affected by the summer black fires.
Almost 2,000 species and habitats are listed as threatened under Australia’s environmental laws.
The state of the environment report, produced by the government every five years, is due earlier this year and is expected to show continued declines.
“It’s obvious that the koala is an iconic, cute and cuddly creature, and the Prime Minister had his photo opportunity with a koala,” says Abrahams.
“But there are a lot of species that aren’t charismatic – like the spiders on Kangaroo Island – and unfortunately I can’t imagine that kind of money coming for these and all the other species on our endangered species list.
“We still have much more to do”