Destruction of Appin koala habitat a disgrace

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They are a small population of Australian natives, living not far to the south of birrrabirragal, Sydney Harbour, clinging to existence and living off the land precisely as they have since the days of the Dreamtime. Never, however, have they faced so many threats to their mere survival as right now. Just last summer, whole populations just like theirs were wiped out by the bushfires. Others have fallen victim to developers, disease, and feral cars. Still they hold on, blithely unaware of the forces at play as to whether they live or die.

They are the koalas in about sixty hectares of gum trees down Appin way, boasting the healthiest koala population in the state . . . but we’ll get to that.

Koalas are facing extinction if their habitat is not protected.

Koalas are facing extinction if their habitat is not protected.Credit:Getty

A NSW parliamentary inquiry determined in June that the last estimate of 36,000 koalas in the state is now completely outdated. , and we may have lost as much as a third of them, after the fires destroyed about 24 per cent of the koala habitat, while down on the south coast as much as 81 per cent disappeared, practically overnight. The upshot was that “given the scale of loss to koala populations across New South Wales as a result of the 2019-2020 bushfires and without urgent government intervention to protect habitat and address all other threats, the koala will become extinct in New South Wales before 2050.”

It seemed the NSW government – or at least NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean – listened announcing in August that he wanted to double the NSW koala population by 2050, and just a couple of months ago said, “I want to see core koala habitat continue to be protected.”

Despite such positive noises, here is the reality of what is in store for the Appin koalas. Since the Berejiklian government relaxed its native vegetation laws in 2017 – and as revealed in July by the NSW Department of Planning – land clearing in NSW has risen by an estimated 60 per cent. (The report shows “60,800 hectares of woody vegetation was cleared in 2018, up from 58,000 hectares the previous year and an average of 38,800 hectares between 2009 and 2017.”)

NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro has been overheard calling koalas "tree rats".

NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro has been overheard calling koalas "tree rats".Credit:Kate Geraghty

Courtesy of pressure applied by NSW National Party leader John Barilaro – who I am reliably informed has been overheard to refer to koalas as “tree rats” – the NSW government has recently introduced legislation that weakens koala protection, r rushing the Local Land Services Amendment (Miscellaneous) Bill 2020, through the lower house. If it passes the upper house, the upshot is that land clearing on koala habitat not already identified in rural areas will not be regulated, and expanding koala habitat protection on private farmland will be – get this – prevented.

Now, specifically on those 500 Appin koalas? Well, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes and the NSW government have recently agreed to rezone those 60 hectares so that a $70 million 280-lot housing development of the Walker Corporation – which has donated an estimated $633,000 to the Liberal Party state and federal over the last 11 years – can be established, and take away a third of their critical habitat. This, effectively, overrules Wollondilly Shire Council which has knocked back the plan several times, as – for starters – the Walker proposal has no Koala Management Plan.

Minister Stokes has assured that there is no problem, recently telling the ABC “I am completely confident that on the basis of the merits and the independent advice associated with this rezoning application that 280 homes is the right amount for this site . . . I fail to see how conserving two-thirds of the site is overdevelopment”. Try this then, minister.

Do you think the operative thing is not the two-thirds of the habitat that remains, but the third you are allowing to be knocked over, now, of all times? I am not the only one appalled.

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes.

NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes. Credit:Jessica Hromas

“What’s happening is absolutely outrageous,” Jon Dee, the founder of activist group DoSomething, told me. “The public know that the bushfires had a massive impact on koalas. Rob Stokes and Gladys Berejiklian need to understand that NSW voters want every koala and every koala tree to be fully protected.”

Equally dismayed is Saul Dean of the Total Environment Centre.

“The way it has been fast-tracked is a real problem,” he tells me, “because what is happening is fast-tracking the destruction of koalas. It is not just the land they are on, but the fact that it is crucial corridor for them and wildlife in the area.”

As we speak, the natives in the gum trees still cling on. We have about six months to save them before the bulldozers start up. So, in all urgency, let me cut to the chase. This is a DISGRACE. This government cannot pretend to have any care for the environment when they ram through approvals like this. They have weakened vegetation protections, endangered native species, and all at a frightening pace.

And they are our representatives. This is on our watch. Do something, indeed.