A new report has found that legal protection for Sydney’s koalas are woefully inadequate and will fail to halt the decline of the iconic species, urging the New South Wales state government to close environmental loopholes and ensure regulations are applied consistently.
Legal group the Environmental Defenders Office (EDO) analysed the legal and regulatory frameworks for protecting koalas in the New South Wales capital on behalf of the Sydney Basin Koala Network.
“There are alarm bells going off across the region. Koala numbers in the Sydney basin overall have declined by an estimated 22% in the past 20 years, and NSW legislation and policy has continued to allow their decline,” Jeff Angel, director of Total Environment Centre, which manages the Sydney basin bioregion, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Areas with the most significant koala populations are not being protected from development and other threats, despite their looming extinction.”
As of 2012, the Sydney basin bioregion was estimated to contain roughly 10% of the NSW Koala population, with a mean estimate of 5,667 koalas, according to the state government, however these figures were estimated before the devastating Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, which had a significant impact on koalas and koala habitat across the state.
Despite renewed efforts to protect the species following the fires, EDO Special Counsel Cerin Loane found that planning, environmental, and natural resource laws continue to allow koala habitat to be destroyed or degraded and the species remains at risk.
The tree-dwelling marsupials are facing multiple threats from the cumulative effects of hundreds of development approvals causing habitat loss, modification, and fragmentation, along with being hit by vehicles, dog attacks, stress-induced disease, as well as droughts, floods, and fires.
Despite the threats to koalas being well known and various efforts aim to improve the animal’s conservation, legal loopholes continue to allow their habitat to be destroyed, the report found.
It included multiple examples, such as the NSW Koala Strategy, which aims to double koala numbers by 2050.
The government has touted the strategy as the “biggest commitment by any government to secure koalas in the wild”, committing more than A$190 million ($131 mln) to the strategy through to 2026.
However, the report noted that the strategy is not legally enforceable, and fails to effectively address the major threat of habitat loss, fragmentation, and modification.
The NSW government has mapped Areas of Regional Koala Significance (ARKS) across the state as part of the strategy to guide where to invest in conservation, but the EDO report said that these ARKS have no legal status and do not trigger any additional legal requirements or protections.
It also noted that the strategy could easily be overridden by successive governments, given that funding has only been committed to for the first five years of the scheme.
One of the strategy’s biggest flaws, the report said, was its failure to address habitat loss and fragmentation.
While the strategy aims to restore, or create an additional 100,000 hectares of habitat by 2050, it does not estimate how much existing koala habitat is at risk of being lost over that same period due to clearing for development.
The report was also critical of the NSW Biodiversity Offset Scheme – designed as a way to offset unavoidable impacts on biodiversity.
EDO has previously highlighted concerns with the scheme, reiterating in its latest report that it “does not align with best practice, permits an inappropriate level of variation, and does not contain the ecologically necessary limits to prevent extinctions”.
The report flagged that the scheme does not impose a clear and objective ‘no net loss or better’ environmental standard, there are no safeguards to ensure the genuine application of mitigation hierarchy developers are suppose to adhere to when using the scheme, and the rules are too flexible to be effective.
It highlighted that proponents clearing koala habitat can discharge obligations by offsetting koala populations with another animal, and even where koalas are being offset with koalas, there are no location requirements for offsetting ‘species credit’ species.
The report gave an example where a local koala population and habitat in one part of the Sydney basin bioregion could be offset with a different koala population elsewhere in the bioregion which may be hundreds of kilometres away.
“After extensive review, it’s clear that our laws are not up to the task of protecting koalas and their habitat. We have identified multiple opportunities to strengthen koala laws and policies,” EDO’s Loane said.
“We need urgent reform together with ongoing support for government agencies and private landholders to identify koala habitat, assess threats, and properly implement the rules.”
The report said there was an opportunity to create immediate impact and halt the decline of koala populations across he state, by ensuring laws apply to all koala habitat by adopting consistent, comprehensive mapping across NSW to identify key areas for conservation so koala populations can recover and grow.
It also said state laws required urgent reform to deliver protection and strong safeguards for koalas in all environmental, planning, and land clearing legislation.
Earlier this month the NSW government announced A$1.3 mln in funding to go to eight research projects by universities and NGOs undertaking various koala health and habitat studies.
“Koalas are both environmental and cultural icons for all Australians, which is why it’s so important to conserve their habitat and secure their future in the wild,” NSW Environment Minister James Griffin said.
Last year the NSW government partnered with Climate Friendly and the World Wildlife Fund to launch the trial of the Koala Friendly Carbon project, designed to earn Australian Carbon Credit Units by restoring koala habitats.
By Mark Tilly – firstname.lastname@example.org