The lovable tree-hugging koala is one of Australia’s most popular endemic creatures. They can be found in the southeast and eastern sides of Australia’s mainland, munching on eucalyptus after sleeping for 18 hours. But they may soon face the same fate as many of Australia’s native marsupials.
In 2019, the Australian Koala Foundation estimated that there were only 80,000 koalas left in the wild. The bushfires later that year saw at least 5,000 koalas perish. If no action is taken, the koala may be extinct in the Australian state of New South Wales by 2050.
Experts say this failure to preserve one of Australia’s most iconic creatures is symptomatic of the country’s tepid approach to animal conservation and weak environmental laws. Without reform, Australia may lose the wildlife that makes it so unique.
“You might know that Australia is one of the global biodiversity hotspots, but we actually have the worst record of looking after our biodiversity,” Tim Allard, Chief Executive Officer at the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) told VICE World News.
Australia has an extinction crisis — one that started over two centuries ago when Europeans introduced red foxes and feral cats to Australia’s shores. These predators preyed on small mammals such as potoroos, bandicoots, and bettongs, to name a few, and multiplied to ubiquity across the continent, where they continue to be the greatest threat to endangered species today. Research estimates that cats and foxes have wiped 22 native mammals from the face of the earth, and continue to drive 270 more species to extinction. Since European colonization, the country is estimated to have lost 100 plant and animal species, and that’s just based on available records.
It was only two decades ago when a nationwide environmental policy addressing extinction was put into legislation. The Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPCB) Act 1999 was implemented to protect Australia’s wildlife, particularly its unique and increasingly threatened flora and fauna. It was expected to become an important piece of legislation for environmental protection, but experts say that it has done little to curb extinction rates.
“[The EPBC Act] is not set up to require specific outcomes to be achieved. It’s more set up to require processes to happen — like a species to be put on a list, or a plan to be made. It doesn’t actually require anyone to go ahead and implement the plan,” Martine Maron, a terrestrial ecologist and professor at the University of Queensland, told VICE World News.
The law is designed to conserve “protected matters” such as threatened species, migratory species, and threatened ecosystems. Anyone can nominate a species for the list, and if eligible, the species will be protected through conservation advice, recovery plans, and the EPBC Act’s assessment and approval provisions. The latter pertains to any action that would have a significant impact on these protected matters, such as land clearing, which must first be referred to the federal government for assessment.
“A lot of the argument to do with the EPBC Act and its effectiveness tends to center on what development impacts end up being allowed to go ahead under the act, and what it might stop. It needs to be about more than that. It needs to be about protecting the environment, restoring the environment and species,” Maron said.
Even though the law allows the government to prevent developments that potentially harm protected matters from pushing through, 99 percent of developments reported are allowed to proceed. Sometimes, these are permitted if they follow certain conditions. Under the law, the government may request the acting body to protect, repair, or mitigate damage to a protected matter, and then monitor the project to ensure compliance. However, there are many cases where conditions aren’t adhered to, and there are no efforts to check or penalize non-compliance. The koala, for example, has been on the EPBC Act’s “vulnerable” list since April 2012. But over 177,000 hectares of koala habitat have been cleared since then, mostly for livestock pasture and forestry operations.
In 2011, the government required all environmentally damaging activities in Australia to be offset by something positive. So if an acting body cleared land in an endangered area, it should compensate somewhere else by rehabilitating another habitat, for example. However, these offsets don’t require a like-for-like replacement of suitable habitat, which means the offset may not actually make up for the species loss. In almost all cases where an offset is required, there will undoubtedly be species loss in the process, and that’s acceptable under environmental offset guidelines.
For example, when Indian company Adani made plans for a coal mine that was expected to wipe out 9,400 hectares of endangered black-throated finch habitat, it offset it by purchasing 20,000 hectares of black-throated finch habitat elsewhere. Even though this would still result in 9,400 hectares of species loss, this is considered an offset under the act.
Since the EPBC Act was passed in 1999, the list of threatened species and ecosystems in Australia has grown from 1,483 to 1,974, three native species have gone extinct, and 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat have been destroyed. About 93 percent of that habitat loss was not referred to the government. Among Australia’s threatened species, fewer than 40 percent of those listed under the EPCB Act have recovery plans in place. And in 2019, the federal environmental department admitted they had no idea if those recovery plans were actually being implemented.
One of the biggest challenges conservationists face under weak environmental policies is getting stakeholders — like communities and business groups — to participate. According to Maron, this is especially true for areas with competing land uses.
“There is often a lack of alignment between the interests of different parts of government and different parts of society. A government might be very keen to see a particular mine go ahead because they see that it will generate revenue for the government. The same government needs to decide whether that’s acceptable if it’s going to have an impact on a threatened species,” she said.
Even though Australian wildlife is much of what makes the land down under unique, there hasn’t been that much awareness among locals.
“For a long time, there was an Australian cringe — we didn’t want to know about the Australian bush and what was unique about it,” Allard said. “Growing up, you’re taught about lions and tigers, and elephants, and what’s happening with polar bears. You’re not taught about malas, wombats, bilbies, bettongs, and they’re found nowhere else on the planet. So we need to do a better job of educating the Australian community of what’s special about Australia.”
“We need to do a better job of educating the Australian community of what’s special about Australia.”
The tragedy of the Australian bushfires in December 2019 raised more awareness among locals. Videos of thirsty koalas ravaged by the bushfires went viral online, drawing attention to the plight of the country’s species. Millions of dollars were raised to help communities and animals that were impacted.
“There are really important functional reasons why we need to keep our biodiversity as intact as possible, especially as we put increasing pressure on the planet. But there are also intrinsic connections between people and the wildlife around them,” Maron said. “I think people would just be incredibly bereft if we let koalas disappear.”
Resourcing is also an issue for conservation efforts in the country. Organizations like the AWC purchase land to protect animals from feral predators. But according to Allard, this has become more difficult because of the rising land prices. He said alternative funding models are not enough to fully protect threatened animals. It’s estimated that Australia needs AU$1.69 billion ($1.31 billion) per year to recover threatened species. A figure that, according to Maron, is only a fraction of what Australians spend on pet food each year. The level of investment relevant to preventing extinction as of the 2018/19 budget sits between AU$41 million to AU$400 million ($32 million to $311 million) per year, based on a submission to the senate inquiry.
In July 2020, expert in public policy Graeme Samuel released a review of the EPBC Act, outlining its failings and recommending sweeping changes. This includes the establishment of legally enforceable national environmental standards, setting clear rules for environmental protection, and enabling sustainable development. How the government will respond to these recommendations remains to be seen.
“Ultimately, it’s a decision for government whether they feel that acting on these recommendations is something they want to support or not,” Maron said. “I really do think that not implementing these reforms after 20 years of seeing continued environmental decline under the act would be a tragedy.”
There have been talks of bumping up the koala’s status from “vulnerable” to “endangered,” but without proper action, the koala may simply join another group: the growing list of species that have gone extinct in Australia.