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Relocation gets koalas parking up the wrong tree

November 28, 2013

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Koalas in Coomera face relocation to make way for homes and a town centre. Environmentalists say relocation puts too much stress on koala populations

Koalas in Coomera face relocation to make way for homes and a town centre. Environmentalists say relocation puts too much stress on koala populations. Photo by Tennyson Tostee

Story by Shani Ishigaki 

Koala numbers on the Gold Coast are dropping. Disease, climate change, cars, and dogs are all factors, but the real danger is something the government can control over – development. Is koala relocation to make way for development working to protect our revered national icon?

This much-loved native animal is recognised the world over as a languid tree-hugger that fusses over which eucalypt leaves to eat. Ask any visitor to Australia what they would love to do and odds are a koala meet-and-greet is part and parcel of the Ozzy tour. If they visit a zoo or wildlife park, they might get their wish.

So why are so many koalas dying on our watch? Large swaths of koala habitat have been set aside for housing and urban development, at the expense of the animal’s home and food trees. The bigger question is, what can be done to save them?

Australia’s listing of the koala as a threatened species is an admission of defeat, described by some as a national shame. The former Labor Government determined the koala had to be vulnerable given the amount of land clearing at that time.

Former Minister for the Environment Tony Burke had criticised the Queensland State Government in parliament for not supporting the decision.

“If we are not going to use threatened species legislation to protect the koala we may as well give up,” Mr Burke told the House.

“Occasionally for anyone who holds this job, some species that no one has ever heard of will be used as a way of trying to ridicule environmental protection. There are not too many people in Australia who have not heard of the koala, and there are not too many people in Australia who will not be seriously alarmed at the decline in numbers,” he said.

In East Coomera, developers promise affordable housing and infinite space for growing families. For Queensland’s koala, however, this is ground zero. It’s easy to understand why the koala is a threatened species when you stand amongst this sprawling asphalt jungle.

The construction of the Coomera Town Centre on the northern end of the Gold Coast is well under way. The town centre and surrounding residential developments will cover a massive 1000 hectares, while the business precinct will spread over 60 hectares.

In 2009, the Gold Coast City Council initiated the East Coomera Koala Conservation Project where  koalas in areas slated for development would be sedated and moved to conservation sites. There are fears that moving these easily stressed animals from their natural homes is having a detrimental effect on the koalas. Conservationists are calling the council’s bluff with claims the relocation of koalas is not saving their lives.

Spokesperson for the Gold Coast and Hinterland Environment Council, Rose Adams, says any relocation of koalas is problematic.

Ms Adams, a passionate environmentalist at leading Gold Coast environmental NGO, GECKO, gets fired up about koala removal. She says she could go on for days about the degradation of koala populations on the Gold Coast.

“Where koalas exist is optimum habitat for them. If they are moved to different areas, despite the habitat being suitable, it will already have resident populations of koalas,” Ms Adams says.

“Unless it’s an area that has been specifically brought up to standard over 10 to 15 years, relocation is simply not viable for these territorial animals,” she says.

“They need quite a large area to move around in. The areas to which they’re being relocated are not large enough to accommodate the populations, as well as existing animals which are equally territorial.”

The government environmental offsets, Ms Adams says, are a poor attempt to look good on paper. She says the Scribbly-gum habitat has already seen an estimated 400 koalas removed for the sake of Coomera’s urban development.

“Habitat offsets were never meant to be about developers buying their way out of their environmental responsibilities.

“I’ll protect this swamp so I can tear up this piece of countryside,” Ms Adams laughs at the way developers operate.

It’s clear there’s hyperbole in the offset arguments the government has put forward.

Secretary of the Tweed Heads Environment Group, Richard Murray, says councils and developers have always been prepared to compromise the habitat of this precious native icon.

Mr Murray’s also on the GECKO campaigns committee, lobbying against the relocation strategy since its inception in 2009. He believes the council’s relocation team leader, John Callaghan, does not agree with the current course of action.

“He’s a conservationist who’s been placed in a terrible situation. The council wants the koalas gone.”

“They’re going to build Coomera Town Centre regardless,” he explains.

“Development plans started many years ago, and I’m wholeheartedly skeptical of the council claiming they had no prior knowledge of the dense koala populations in the Coomera area.”

Mr Murray hands me 20 years of news article clippings on koalas and pictures of wild koalas taken from his own backyard. He’s been an enthusiastic conservationist for decades and he explains how important it is to preserve a koala’s original habitat.

“Home trees are very important to koalas, they might rest or feed in other trees, but they will come back to those trees on a regular basis. The will even work their way through a suburb to get back to those trees.”

He doubts the council’s East Coomera Koala Conservation Project is the long-term initiative to help protect koalas that it claims to be.

Mr Callahan, however, defends the program saying, “While conserving koalas in their existing habitats is the preferred approach, the trial will help determine whether relocation is a suitable option for restocking habitats with falling koala numbers, or to protect koalas living in depleted areas.”

With the council’s koala relocation program continuing until June next year, a lot more koalas will be removed from their home trees, even though Councillor Tate says some approvals have been delayed and the Coomera Town Centre may never be built.

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