By Dr Douglas Kerlin - AKF Chief Ecologist
The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) is expecting to see a draft of the Koala Recovery Plan released just as Australia shuts down for Christmas. Created under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EBPC) Act following the listing of a threatened species, Recovery Plans “set out the research and management actions necessary to stop the decline of, and support the recovery of, listed threatened species.”
The Federal Government has already stated that a Koala recovery plan “is to commence following the expiration of the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy in 2014.”
The Federal Government has developed a habit of releasing Koala policies 'under the radar', just as everyone heads away on holiday, as we saw with the referral guidelines created under the EPBC Act released December of 2013 and 2014.
More importantly, is the Koala ready for a Recovery Plan?
Numbers are still failing across the Country. Key threats (dogs, cars) are still having an immense impact, and indiscriminate clearing of Koala habitat continues unabated. Most councils still have don’t even know where their Koalas are living, because they don’t have any vegetation data.
Koala populations cannot begin to recover until the deaths and the loss of habitat ends. First, they need better protection.
The EPBC Act is incapable of protecting Koalas, and a Recovery plan under the EPBC Act isn’t going to change that.
There is a fundamental flaw in the operation of the EPBC Act, which is that it attempts to protect species without protecting individuals or habitats.
The EPBC Act referral guidelines, which the Federal Government has used to define ‘habitat critical to the survival of the koala,’ have been a failure; once these ‘critical habitats’ are identified, there is little to no actual protection.
There is no ‘line in the sand’; every application that might impact on Koalas is approved. The system just continually gives way to development. There is always another excuse to give the green light, another set of unprecedented conditions that languish without any compliance or enforcement.
A large number of actions under the Act don’t even require approval. Most noticeably, under the referral guidelines, if a development proposes to clear less than 2 hectares of Koala habitat, no approvals are needed. Dig a little deeper, and you find that in practice the Federal Government has decided they don’t need to look at proposals that clear less than 9 hectares. In practice what this means is that any Koalas living in urban areas have no protection from development.
And yet these actions are having an impact on Koalas. On the Koala Coast (Southeast Queensland), for example, State Government figures estimate Koala numbers have declined by 68% between 1999 and 2010.
Despite the declines, there remains an inherent belief in Government that while Koalas may be killed and displaced by development, there will always be more out there over the next hill. Sadly that is no longer the case.
The slow grind to extinction continues unabated.
So, can you protect a species with legislation that is unable to protect individuals?
Government policy is simply aimed at ensuring we don’t lose the last Koala. It is not about restoring the Koala, and the Koala forests, to Australia.
No Recovery Plan that comes out of Canberra will save the Koala.
The first step should be a much stronger focus on the protection of individual Koalas, and on the individual trees they need to survive and thrive. The AKF, in collaboration with legal teams in Australia and international, has drafted the Koala Protection Act (KPA), a simple piece of legislation that recognises and address the flaws in the EPBC Act, and paves the way for the short-term survival, as well as the long-term recovery of the Koala.
Douglas Kerlin BSc (Hons.) MInfTech PhD
Australian Koala Foundation