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Byron Shire
May 15, 2021

Koala death incident brings calls for change

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The last moments of the koala’s life were captured in heartbreakingly-vivid detail.

In the early hours of August 30 last year, a sharp-eyed officer in the RMS control room at Grafton saw a small fuzzy shape on the live feed from the Pacific Highway at Ewingsdale.

Closer inspection revealed that an adult koala was lying in the right lane of the highway at the St Helena tunnel.

The controller and his colleagues activated the tunnel’s signs in a bid to close the right lane.

But it wasn’t enough.

The driver of a prime mover from Lindsay Bros Plant and Equipment who either ignored or failed to see the signs, changed into the right lane and ran over the ailing animal, killing it instantly.

A volunteer from Friends of the Koala was just minutes away.

With documents obtained under freedom of information laws revealing the details of the incident for the first time, questions are being asked about the protocols and policies in place to protect wildlife in the Northern Rivers and beyond.

The Local Member for Ballina, Tamara Smith, said there should have been a protocol in place on August 30 requiring the tunnel to be closed.

‘If there had been a horse or a cow on the motorway they would have closed the whole tunnel because it would have been a threat to human life, why couldn’t they close it to protect the life of a native animal?’ Ms Smith said.

‘Yes it would have disrupted traffic for a while but I think most people would agree that that’s reasonable in order to potentially save the life of a koala.’

Ms Smith called on Roads and Maritime Services to reconsider its protocols when such incidents occurred.

‘I don’t blame the people in the control room that morning, or even the driver because we don’t actually know why he changed into the right lane.

‘I think the RMS needs to have a clear policy that if a native animal wanders onto the roadway in a tunnel like this steps should be taken to safely close the tunnel until the animal can be rescued.’

According to the recently released documents, the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage elected not to take any further action against the truck driver, despite his actions being in breach of the Biodiversity Conservation Act.

However, it is understood he resigned from his position with Lindsay Bros soon after the incident occurred, and that part of the reason for this was the criticism he received from other drivers.

A Roads and Maritime Services spokesperson said the organisation took its animal protection responsibilities seriously and did all it could to reduce animal deaths along the Pacific Highway.

‘The incident occurred around 2am and due to the low number of vehicles travelling at this time there was no need to close the tunnel,’ the spokesperson said.

‘Fauna fencing in the area was reviewed after the 2017 incident and an additional 120 metres of fencing was installed north of the tunnel. No additional koalas have been hit by traffic on this section of the highway since the extra fencing was installed.’

‘There is more than 300 kilometres of fauna fencing installed along the Pacific Highway, with fencing tied into fauna connectivity structures.’

But Ms Smith said large sections of the fencing in her electorate had not been properly maintained.

‘We’ve had trees falling on fences in Missionvale and there’s been virtually no effort to repair the damage,’ she said.

‘They’ve spent millions on wildlife protection measures across the state without actually evaluating the effectiveness.

‘If you listen to the experts they’re saying that what’s really needed is to tag and monitor koalas so we can understand what’s really going on and develop protection policies that are actually effective.’         

Koala death footage: WARNING, GRAPHIC CONTENT: https://www.dropbox.com/s/gin2nfsxylrmicz/v7%20%20Koala.mp4?dl=0

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