Paradigm shift ‘urgent’ as clearing imperils koalas

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Paradigm shift ‘urgent’ as clearing imperils koalas

A laughing koala, perched  in the fork of tree.

A laughing koala, perched in the fork of tree.

by Celina Rigby

A laughing koala, perched in the fork of tree.

by Celina Rigby

by Celina Rigby

A laughing koala, perched in the fork of tree.

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EXPERTS and wildlife advocates are warning that, as global leaders in land-clearing and deforestation, Queenslanders risk losing some of the state’s iconic wildlife.

And disappearing koala populations, they say, are an early environmental alarm bell.

Last year, The Guardian Australia reported that Queensland cleared “more land each year than the rest of Australia put together, and the rate at which it is destroying its vegetation is comparable with the infamous deforestation that occurs in the Brazilian Amazon”.

Map showing percentage of threatened freshwater and terrestrial species in areas affected by habitat loss in 2011.

Source: BioScience
Percentage of threatened freshwater and terrestrial species in areas affected by habitat loss in 2011.

Wilderness Society campaign manager Gemma Plesman

by Celina Rigby
Wilderness Society campaign manager Gemma Plesman.

 

At the same time, Wilderness Society campaign manager Gemma Plesman said, awareness of the incidence and impact of deforestation across Australia was low, noting that the rate of clearing was equivalent to “bulldozing an area of forest and bushland the size of a football field every two minutes”.

Extensive land-clearing and deforestation, Gemma added, was contributing to climate change acceleration.

She said wildlife, especially endangered species, were rapidly losing habitat because of deforestation, noting that Australia’s koalas, and their environment, have already suffered because of land-clearing.

“If we can not save the koalas, then what chance do we have saving more of Australia’s unknown species?”
Gemma Plesman, The Wilderness Society

 

A sleepy Koala at Lone Pine Sanctuary

by Celina Rigby
Brisbane’s Lone Pine Sanctuary is home to some 150 koalas who can no longer live in the wild.

 

According to Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary senior wildlife education officer Kayla Ousley, koalas help to improve the health of bushland by “pruning” eucalypts to encourage new growth and by “fertilising” the soil around the base of trees with their droppings.

However, despite the fact koalas play an important role in shaping their ecosystem, Gemma said scientists were still uncertain about the extent of ramifications should such a significant species be taken out of the ecosystem nor what the flow-on effects might be for the environment.

“If we can not save the koalas, then what chance do we have saving more of Australia’s unknown species?” Gemma asked.

“… deforestation has been costing the lives of close to 50 million native animals every year in Queensland and New South Wales alone”
The Wilderness Society

Kayla said koalas were an “umbrella” species because, when their habitat was protected, it saved habitat for many other species.

This, she added, included animals that were not as popular nor as widely recognised.

Two koalas embracing one another at Lone Pine Sanctuary

by Celina Rigby
When they’re not sleeping, koalas help to improve the health of bushland by “pruning” eucalypts to encourage new growth and by “fertilising” the soil around the base of trees with their droppings.

 

The Wilderness Society agreed, saying deforestation has been costing the lives of close to 50 million native animals every year in Queensland and New South Wales alone.

“This shocking fact doesn’t get talked about enough in the media,” Gemma said. “It is the number one threatening process for many endangered species and (unless things change), Australia is more likely to see more species becoming extinct, or being added to the threatened species list.”

And the Wilderness Society is not alone in forecasting a grim future for the environment.

“Australia is actually among the top ten in the world for deforestation”
Dr Tapan Sarker, Griffith University

Changes must be made and acted upon soon, according to Griffith University sustainability and climate change researcher Dr Tapan Sarker.

“Australia is actually among the top ten in the world for deforestation,” Dr Sarker explained. “This is a very serious problem.

“If I compare Australia to Europe, we are not doing well. In Europe, there are more people inclined to understand, believe and act on climate change.

“We are sort of a little brother to, maybe, the United States, which is speeding up its denial of this climate change.”

Dr Tapan Sarker

Supplied
Dr Tapan Sarker.

Despite the dire outlook, both Dr Sarker and Gemma Plesman agreed it was not too late to change attitudes.

“But it needs to be all levels of government starting to set an example and (to) implement stronger laws to protect forest and bushland,” Gemma said.

“We have cleared almost 50 per cent of our original native ecosystem in Australia.”

This, she said, had seen Australia named as one of the most heavily degraded continents on the planet.

Calling for funds to be made available for the restoration of degraded landscapes, Gemma said now was the time for real leadership to halt further destruction.

“We all want clean air, water and a sustainable future for our children and being able to go walking in a forest in 20, 30 or 50 years time and to see (Australia’s unique) animals – including koalas – which can be found nowhere else on the planet,” Gemma said.

Dr Sarker agreed, but said that change was in the air, given the recent protests by school children.

He predicted it would be today’s children and young adults who would be tomorrow’s leaders and they would want to address climate change and improve the environment.

“There has been a paradigm shift,” Dr Sarker said.

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Understanding the cost of land-clearing on koala populations

  • Habitat loss is the most serious threat to koalas in Queensland and New South Wales
  • Koalas formerly occupied a large part of the relatively continuous belt of woodlands and open-forests in eastern Australia, with a sparse occurrence in the semi-arid woodlands, primarily on riparian vegetation
  • In the 50 years to 2013, land clearing had removed 57 per cent of Queensland’s original koala habitats and their remaining habitats were severely fragmented
  • Koalas need to come to the ground to move from one food or shelter tree to the next or in search of a mate, and at this time they are vulnerable to attacks by domestic or wild dogs, or to being struck by vehicles on busy roads
  • Chlamydia infections have further threatened stressed koalas living in fragmented landscapes
  • Periods of extreme heat and drought, and associated fires, have also caused significant mortality
  • In the 15 years to 2015, these interacting threats and the extinction debt from previous clearing have caused the populations of koalas in Queensland to rapidly decline
  • The rate of decline in the national population has been estimated to be close to 30 per cent in the last three generations
  • However, in Queensland, declines of 80.3 per cent in the Koala Coast and 54.3 per cent in Pine Rivers occurred between 1996 and 2014
  • Surveys have estimated 80 per cent decline in koala numbers across the Mulga Lands bioregion along the Warrego River, from an estimate of 59,000 in 1995 to just 11,600 in 2009
  • Land-clearing is the direct cause of many deaths, but has also created the fragmented landscapes that expose the koala to additional threats.
  • Climate change causing more extreme weather particularly in the western part of the koala’s distribution, and the expansion of coal and coal seam gas developments and associated infrastructure are additional new threats
  • Any additional clearing of habitat only further compounds the multiple threats to this vulnerable species.

Source: Scientific review of land-clearing impacts on threatened species in Queensland, Queensland Department of Science, Information Technology and Innovation, 2017

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Words: Celina Rigby
Images: Celina Rigby / The Argus; supplied

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Want to read more?
The original version of this story is one of 30 in a special online Climate Change edition of The Argus that was compiled by Queensland College of Art students from a final-year course called Transmedia Storytelling.