The head of a state koala inquiry has written to the premier asking for urgent rescues of wildlife from bushfire-affected areas in northern NSW.
In a letter forwarded onto Echonetdaily, Greens upper house MP Cate Faehrmann wrote of ‘alarming evidence’ heard in Ballina last Friday at a public hearing for the inquiry.
The parliamentary committee overseeing the inquiry heard recent bushfires had burned through three of the most significant koala populations on the North Coast: those in the Braemar, Carwong and Royal Camp State Forests.
‘We understand that the general public, including wildlife rescuers, appear to be unable to enter these forests,’ wrote Ms Faehrmann, ‘however, the Committee heard that one member of the public who ignored the ban located an injured koala and joey in Braemer State Forest that were rescued and are now being cared for’.
Koalas either killed or starving to death
Ms Faehrmann said in her letter the fires had burned or dried out most koala food, adding to the urgency of the situation.
‘Evidence taken from ecologists today suggest that 60-70 percent of the population could have been killed in the fires and that the remaining 30-40 percent will be under significant stress as a result of limited or no access to food and water and will die if not provided assistance,’ Ms Faehrmann wrote.
‘The committee urgently requests that the relevant agencies allow wildlife carers immediate access to these forests to assess, provide support and rescue injured or stressed animals.’
Ms Faehrmann’s request echoed similar requests from the North East Forest Alliance(NEFA), North Coast Environment Council (NCEC) and Animal Liberation.
Koala advocates call for rescuers to be let into bushfire areas
‘We are dealing with a massive wildlife disaster,’ NEFA spokesman Dailan Pugh said.
The acclaimed environmentalist said the Busby’s Flat fire had burnt over 50,000 hectares, of which 36,000 held native vegetation.
He said overall, more than 280,000 hectares of native vegetation in the Clarence and Richmond catchments had been burnt in the past two months and 18% of lost native vegetation was burnt in national parks and state forests.
‘This includes extensive areas of similarly known important koala habitat up on the Dorrigo Plateau burnt in the Bees Nest fire,’ he said.
‘Given that wildfires are increasing in intensity due to the conversion of forests to regrowth and climate heating, the onus is on us to mitigate our impacts.’
Animal Liberation chief Lynda Stoner said it was ‘beyond comprehension’ that the ‘urgent plight of injured, suffering and displaced koalas’ was ‘still being ignored by the NSW government’ while a koala inquiry was happening.
‘Animal Liberation appreciates this is still an active fire ground under Section 44 management and is under control of the RFS Commissioner,’ Ms Stoner said, ‘however, we find it reprehensible and extremely distressing that NSW Forestry and NPWS are driving around monitoring the fire, and yet no-one is monitoring the urgent welfare needs of these koalas’.
Ms Stoner said volunteer wildlife carers and advocates urgently needed government funding.
North Coast Environment Council President Jim Morrison called for an ‘urgent review of response and protocols for wildlife rescue following bushfires in NSW’.
‘Our unique wildlife is an important national asset. We should be treating it as such,’ Mr Morrison said in a media release.
‘The longer it takes for people to be allowed in to the area, the more likely it is koalas will die,’ he wrote.
“We recognise that safety is a primary consideration, but surely there are methods and equipment that can be deployed to find and save injured wildlife?’
Mr Morrison suggested cameras, training for RFS crews in animal rescue and putting out drinking troughs as a start.
‘If we collectively cared enough to develop the tools we could make a difference,’ he said.
What’s more important: koalas or wood?
Inquiry chair Ms Faehrmann said the parliamentary committee understood the government’s Forestry Corporation might be trying to work out what wood could be salvaged from forest areas after fires had gone through.
The committee has asked the government to prioritise wildlife recovery over wood recovery, to develop a recovery plan for koalas impacted by the fires, and to give koala rescue similar resources to fish rescue.
‘Just like the Government has shown it is prepared to put resources into ensuring native fish populations are rescued as a result of inland rivers drying up, the Government should ensure that any koalas which have survived the fires in these forests are also rescued’, Ms Faehrmann wrote.
30 years of inaction on koalas, says koala foundation
Australian Koala Foundation Chairman (AKF) Deborah Tabart appeared at Ballina’s public hearing and said the ‘common acceptance’ of koala extinction by 2050 was giving people a false sense of security.
Ms Tabart said in a press release sent before the public hearing that she stood by the AKF’s announcement earlier this year of the koala as ‘functionally extinct’.
Other koala advocates had since disputed the AKF’s declaration but Ms Tabart said she was confident the organisation had ‘more knowledge’ on koala populations than ‘all levels of government’.
During the public hearing, Ms Tabart presented an AKF map of koala habitat across Australia, including in NSW and challenged the government to present their maps.
‘They are still talking about making them,’ she had written earlier,’ I have heard that for 30 years’.
The AKF chief said the government had ‘endless committees or hearings’, no government efforts to save koalas over the past 30 years had worked and it was ‘time everyone realised the urgency of protecting koala habitat’.
National Trust calls for logging bans and habitat investment
On Monday morning, The National Trust NSW announced its koala conservation policy.
Said to be Australia’s oldest and largest independent conservation organisation, The National Trust was founded in 1945 and reportedly owns or manages more than 300 built and natural heritage places, most held in perpetuity.
The Trust said government evidence from an earlier public hearing in August showed the former Office of Environment and Heritage had identified more than 100,000 hectares of core koala habitat across the state but only 16 per cent of it was protected as part of the National Parks estate.
‘Before native vegetation clearing codes were introduced in March 2018, the former OEH warned the NSW Government that less than one per cent of identified koala habitat in New South Wales was protected from clearing under the proposed codes,’ the Trust wrote in a media release.
Since the introduction of the codes, landholders had given notice of 51,000 hectares of clearing and Local Land Services had approved a further 288,000 hectares of clearing for agriculture, the Trust said.
Thousands of hectares of koala habitat were reportedly included in the approved clearing zones.
The Trust said it wanted to see clearing of koala habitat banned; koala management plans finalised; investment in koala habitat, including restoration and connectivity between existing habitats; native forest ogging phased out and a transition to ‘plantations established on long cleared land of low biodiversity importance’.
A full copy of the policy was available online.