Lorraine Vass is the president of Friends of the Koala, Inc. and the chair of the NSW Wildlife Council, Inc.
Impressive gains for koala conservation on the Northern Rivers have been achieved over the past couple of weeks.
The federal listing of the combined koala populations of Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory as vulnerable to extinction; Biodiversity Fund grants for on-ground koala habitat recovery; a State-wide community koala summit to be held by the end of the year and Lismore Council's adoption of the Comprehensive Koala Plan of Management for South-East Lismore have encouraged and energised us all.
But the nation's treatment of the koala has been consistently shameful. Large-scale killings for the skin trade in the late 1800s and early 1900s would have seen them wiped out completely if the US government hadn't permanently prohibited the importation of koala and wombat skins.
In 1939 the estimated population in NSW was a mere 200 animals. By 1963 the estimate was 'several thousand' which grew to 31,000 in 1990. That number has dropped back to 21,000 in 2010. However there continues to be considerable disagreement about the number of koalas in NSW and this won't change until there is an agreed framework for estimating population and integrated monitoring.
The Senate Committee's report The Koala - Saving Our National Icon documents drastic ongoing population declines, local extinctions and even the likelihood of imminent regional extinctions in the northern parts of the koala's geographic range. We no longer shoot our koalas, we just destroy their habitat.
You'd think that planned management of koala recovery would be a 'no brainer'. But no, a few people have fought assiduously for years to block implementation of a koala management plan in Lismore. They claim to 'love' koalas and to have exercised responsible stewardship of them; that the koalas are doing fine, their range expanding over recent decades; that it is legislation and regulation that's responsible for any decline.
NSW's koalas have been listed vulnerable to extinction under State law since the early 1990s, but as we all know, loopholes in legislation are easily found. Some lawyers make it their life's work to find more. Even when obligations exist, they can be poorly executed and often an overworked or under-resourced bureaucracy doesn't police compliance.
We forget they're primarily eucalypt forest-dwelling animals. Over the border in South-East Queensland, where some consider the koala to be functionally extinct, studies suggest that up to 4000ha is required to support a viable koala population of at least 500. Today's koalas persist at the extreme. Natural habitat in a landscape is reduced, the size of a koala population declines and the chance of extinction increases.
There are habitat thresholds under which population sizes decline rapidly. In some patches the koala may become extinct because of the effects of past clearing, the so-called 'extinction debt' which is the lag between clearing and the impact on the koala population.
Koalas in many parts of the Northern Rivers, and Lismore in particular, are riddled with disease. Some are treatable if we catch them early enough, but often by the time a koala is noticed either low in a tree or on the ground, it's too late to save it.
On top of disease are the car strikes and dog attacks. We may record the fate of the koala as a car strike but necropsy often identifies disease present. The animal is already compromised and may well be the reason for its susceptibility to road hit or predation.
Fortunately Lismore has been spared the wildfires that have devastated koala populations elsewhere in the Northern Rivers. Nor have our animals yet experienced the impact of extreme heat and prolonged drought which has been the downfall of koalas around Gunnedah and the Pilliga.
Urbanisation, some agricultural practices and forest logging regimes continue to impoverish koala survival. The complementary regulatory framework provided by the long fought for SEPP 44-driven Comprehensive Koala Plan and Federal listing is welcome, but in itself won't be enough.
Unless we are prepared to learn about these wonderful creatures we live with, change our personal behaviours and speak out for them, their future will remain perilous.
To plant where we can; to observe road signage and drive with care; to choose not to have a dog if we live with koalas; to urge logging practice reform; to support research; to call for expansion of strategic wildlife corridors; to embrace the Koala Plan's management actions; to participate in FOK's koala conservation effort, are just some of the things each of us can do.
Saving Lismore's koalas is everybody's responsibility.