DEFORESTATION AND KOALA EXTINCTION: There’s an economic cost too


Photo by Florentine Pautet on Unsplash

Photo by Florentine Pautet on Unsplash

Imminent koala extinction and continued land clearing could impact Australia’s tourism industry and economy, experts say, following a statement from a major environment group that koalas could be extinct in NSW within thirty years.

The World Wide Fund for Nature and Nature Conservation Council recently released a year-long study of NSW forests that found that 14 hectares of koala habitat were destroyed each day during 2017.

The report carried the shocking warning that koalas could be extinct in the state by 2050. For koala-lovers, it’s a staggering wake-up call; but the finding goes deeper than ethical concerns; koala health is also an economic concern.

According to the Australian Koala Foundation, the koala generates $3.2 billion dollars in annual revenue for Australia. Koalas and other native wildlife underpin Australian ecotourism, with the tourism authority for Australia’s most populous state, Destination NSW, reporting that nature-based visitors stayed 129.2 million nights and spent $19.6 billion in NSW alone during 2017.

Professor Tor Hundloe has studied the impact of koalas on Australia’s tourism industry in depth, and says “We found that a sizable portion, 11% of people, wouldn’t come to Australia as tourists if they couldn’t see koalas. That’s an indication of the interest. Why do people come to Australia as tourists? What do they do? Most of the literature says its for nature appreciation.”

Hundloe is an economist and Professor of Environmental Management at the University of Queensland and literally wrote the book on this topic, titled Koalas and Tourism: An Economic Evaluation.

He believes that part of the reason koalas are at risk, is they don’t hold direct economic value. “We have laws in virtually all states about preventing landclearing but they’re not necessarily well enforced,” he explains.

“We’ve had a government against protecting koalas since colonisation. The economic issue is that no one owns a koala. The people who make money off of the koala make it indirectly. You haven’t got that simple one-to-one profit relationship,” he says.

Against this: the immediate profits to be made by destroying the koala’s habitats. “If you’re cutting down trees and then your short-term profits are increasing but in the long term you are doing serious damage,” says Professor Hundloe.

On November 28 2018, the NSW government renewed the Regional Forest Agreements leaving 3.18 million hectares of forested land unprotected from logging.

The rationale behind much of the fine print in the RFAs is the government’s claim to protect the Australian economy by protecting NSW’s forest industries. A report from the NSW Department of Primary Industries said, “[The RFAs] provide long-term confidence for NSW’s $2.4 billion forest industries and provide critical protection of important environmental assets and threatened species.”

But in stark contrast to the government’s claim that native deforestation can be approached sustainably, koala experts say that any deforestation is harmful.

Morgan Philpott has spent the past five years volunteering with the Wildlife Information Rescue and Education Services (WIRES) as a koala carer.

He explains that even partial logging in koala habitats can be devastating. “As a result of habitat fragmentation, koalas can’t interact with each other like they normally would, they have to come to the ground and walk to the other sides of the forested corridor which puts them at risk to dogs and cars.”

Federal conservation legislation results in habitat areas surrounded by high density urban populations. “So, there’s no wildlife corridors. Koalas can’t move from one place to another, so the koalas are overcrowding the areas in which they are, and can’t get out. They’re actually eaten out of house and home,” says koala advocate Vanda Grabowski, President and Secretary of Koala Action Incorporated.

There’s increasing strong evidence to show that if economic issues are a priority, conserving forests will protect existing koala revenue while also increasing ecotourism economic benefits and creating new job opportunities.

The National Parks Association (NPA) of NSW is currently campaigning for the Great Koala National Park. The park would protect an additional 175,000 hectares of state forests. This would protect koala habitat and boost tourism and local business opportunities through nature based experiences and associated infrastructure.

Deforestation poses a threat to this innovation. “The continuation of native forest logging is the biggest obstacle for the Great Koala National Park,” says Dr. Oisin Sweeney, Senior Ecologist for the NPA, who is leading the campaign for The Great Koala National Park.

Another reason to prioritise koala habitat over logging is that it will lead to more jobs.

The number of Australians who depend on forestry for employment is decreasing. “Total direct employment in the forest and wood products sector fell by over 10,000 employees between 2006 and 2011, including in those Statistical Local Areas most dependent on these industries,” reports the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

“In fact, native forest logging itself is actually quite a small industry. In many cases, its loss making. The government actually pays Forestry Corporation approximately 18 million dollars a year,” says Dr. Sweeney.

While the benefits of the logging industry are reportedly decreasing, the severity of the challenges koalas face are increasing.

“We see koala habitat disappearing at an alarming rate. The [population] numbers are low, and everybody out there is telling us that koalas are dropping terribly,” conservation biologist Martin Taylor told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on September 10 2018.

Morgan Philpott has seen a significant increase in the number of koalas that are forced into urban areas. “The single biggest threat without a doubt is deforestation,” he says.

Vanda Grabowski, who raises, rescues, and releases koalas, says the situation is severe. She says, “I actually have an entire wall in my house which is devoted to the picture of those of my babies who came back to me as dead bodies.”

It’s a gruesome image; but unless changes are made to the rapid rate of habitat destruction, the situation for koalas and their associated revenue is bleak.