26 Apr 2021


By Dr Stuart Blanch

Senior Manager, Towards Two Billion Trees, WWF-Australia

When koalas faced extinction a century ago, our politicians failed us.

It was a US Secretary of Commerce and future President, Herbert Hoover, who saved the remaining koalas from being shot for their pelts by banning their import to the US.

Back then we had millions of koalas in New South Wales. Now, there are likely fewer than 25,000 left, and possibly fewer than 10,000 following years of deep drought and the catastrophic 2019-20 bushfires.

No one knows exactly how many koalas are left. But we do know they face extinction in the state before 2050, and perhaps sooner if current threats continue or worsen.

It is no wonder koalas have disappeared from millions of hectares after so much deforestation, logging, extreme weather fuelled by global heating, Chlamydia, vehicle collisions and dog attacks.

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Deceased koala hit by a car and killed near Helensburgh= NSW
© Help Save the Wildlife and Bushlands in Campbelltown

Our koala killing spree has been relentless, comprehensive, and effective.

First we shot them, then we bulldozed and chopped down their forest homes, and now we are dehydrating and burning them through human-induced climate change.

So it is incomprehensible to me that the NSW Government now proposes to strip koalas of even the modicum of legal protection that remains for their tree homes on rural land.

WWF-Australia estimates this single act exposes at least 3.2 million hectares, and likely more than 7.7 million hectares, of koala habitat to deforestation and degradation.

The NSW Environment and Agriculture Ministers have now been tasked with negotiating ‘robust protections for koalas in areas of high-value koala habitat’.

This should involve strengthening the weak and permissive Land Management (Native Vegetation) and Private Native Forestry codes to provide the same or higher levels of protection for koala habitat on rural lands as the Koala State Environmental Planning Policy is supposed to provide when assessing urban and infrastructure development through the planning system.

Strong legal protection of core koala habitat across rural lands should underpin the NSW Koala Strategy 2.0, which is due for release in the next couple months.

We need a comprehensive koala peace deal that saves koalas and doubles their population by 2050. I hope it would be broadly welcomed, or at least grudgingly accepted, by farmers, environmentalists, First Nations, loggers, ecologists, developers, and regional communities.

Koalas should be safe wherever they live

A koala peace deal should be based upon an agreement between the community and primary producers that ties strong laws to significant funding.

If taxpayers want to save koalas on rural lands, they should recognise the role farmers must have in protecting their habitat. If farmers want major funding to save and grow koala homes, they should accept strong laws.

Koalas face many dangers when trying to cross from one pocket of fragmented trees to another. This particular koala was attacked by dogs and finally found dubious safety clinging to a barbed-wire fence.
Koalas face many dangers when trying to cross from one pocket of fragmented trees to another. This particular koala was attacked by dogs and finally found dubious safety clinging to a barbed-wire fence. © Clare Gover, Return to the Wild Inc. / WWF-Aus

Strengthening laws

Core koala habitat should receive a reasonably strong base level of protection under the Land Management (Native Vegetation) and Private Native Forestry codes, while providing enough flexibility and certainty for farm management. Additional protections would trigger public subsidies from a $1 billion koala fund to pay farmers and loggers enough money to make it worth their while financially to save koala habitat rather than bulldozing or logging it. These would be secured through conservation agreements plus a new state carbon farming and landscape restoration program. Koalas live in the trees that store the forest carbon that is so crucial to cutting greenhouse gas emissions. We need to pay farmers handsomely – think $30, $50 or $100 per tonne of carbon – when they voluntarily save and regrow forests where koalas live.

In exchange for the funds, illegal landclearing of koala habitat should be prosecuted to build confidence and maintain trust in the deal.

More extension officers are needed in Local Land Services and the Biodiversity Conservation Trust to work with landholders who want to protect koala habitat but need help to do it.

Comprehensive analysis and data

Accurate, high-resolution maps of the many millions of hectares of koala habitat that are accurate at the property scale are also sorely needed, validated through vegetation and koala surveys and also suitable for use by Councils.

A state wide koala survey is long overdue, with reliable records provided by ecologists, citizen scientists, koala loving farmers, detection dogs, acoustic meters, Indigenous Rangers, national parks staff, forestry staff, environmental consultants, and thermal imagery drones.

Major investment is needed to hasten the transition from native forest logging to plantations only forestry, retraining timber workers and upgrading mills.

Koala economy

And we need to grow the koala economy to create new jobs and businesses through ecotourism and conservation in rural and regional areas that will help retain and attract people to the bush and the coast. Saving koalas should lead to Indigenous reconciliation and land rights through handback of state forests and Crown land to Traditional Owners for restoration, or at the very least co-management with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

A koala joey in Swan Bay in the Richmond Valley
img-koala-joey-swan-bay-1000px © Jacob Crisp

WWF-Australia is committed to working with governments and landholders to double the east coast koala population in the next 30 years.

We welcome statements by NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean and Deputy Premier John Barilaro that they want to do the same.

Now, the NSW Premier should grasp this opportunity to end the koala wars and set the state on the path to achieving this target.

Add your voice to help save Koalas in NSW.