Counting Cowper koalas: $18 million to help save our icons

Mr Conaghan, Ms Ley and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger Geoff James during an inspection of the bushfire impacts at Lake Innes Nature Reserve in January this year.
Mr Conaghan, Ms Ley and NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service Ranger Geoff James during an inspection of the bushfire impacts at Lake Innes Nature Reserve in January this year.

Local residents will soon be able to participate in the Australian Government's annual koala monitoring program in order to pin-point where koala populations are and determine how to best help our Aussie icons recover from the Black Summer Bushfires.

Federal Member for Cowper Pat Conaghan has welcomed Environment Minister Sussan Ley's announcement of an $18 million package.

"The annual koala monitoring program our Government is funding will provide a channel to collate all local conservationists' valuable knowledge on koalas to give government agencies a better picture on koala population numbers and trends," he said.

Launching the initiative at Sydney's Taronga Zoo, Minister Ley said the koala audit would help direct Commonwealth, State and private funding to where it will achieve the most good for the species.

For all our focus on koalas, scientists are telling us that there is a serious lack of data about where populations actually are, how they are faring and the best ways to help them recover after the devastating bushfires.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley

"A total of $2 million from this package will be devoted to filling those gaps, identifying where koala habitat areas can be expanded and establishing an annual monitoring program."

Annual reporting on koala populations and conservation strategies will become a mandatory agenda item at Meetings of National Environment Ministers and a range of techniques will be employed from scat monitoring to drone and acoustic surveys, detector dogs and citizen science surveys.

Threatened Species Commissioner Dr Sally Box said that this funding boost comes at a critical time for our koalas, following the devastating bushfires which killed and injured countless animals.

"Today's announcement will support the conservation community to respond to the devastating 2019-20 summer bushfire season which impacted important habitat for koalas and other threatened species right across Australia," said Dr Box.

"By understanding where koalas are persisting, how they are using the remaining habitat and how they are responding to the fire impacted landscape, we can tailor on-ground efforts to ensure that action is focused where it is needed most."

But not everyone is satisfied this census will deliver or is, in fact, needed in the first place.

The Greens want a moratorium on clearing critical koala habitat, saying the Government already knows where the animal lives.

"A koala census won't save our national treasure from the Morrison government," the party's environment spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young said.

Koalas have been counted in critical habitat areas only for the Government to ignore that data and approve mining and development projects that imperil the koalas calling that land home.

And Labor's environment spokeswoman Terri Butler, who called for an ecological audit of bushfire damage in January, believes this latest announcement is long overdue. She pointed out the national koala conservation strategy has long been expired.

"Not good enough," she said.

"Three billion animals were killed or displaced in the bushfires. An area of up to 19 million hectares was burned. An inquiry has found koalas are at risk of being extinct in New South Wales by 2050.

"Yet it took the minister until September this year to request that the koala be considered for threatened species status 'uplisting' and until November to announce an audit."

In addition to funding the annual koala monitoring program, a further $2 million will be invested in koala health research and veterinary support, tackling challenges such as chlamydia and other diseases that are second only to car strikes in the normal causes of koala mortality recorded in veterinary hospitals.

The remaining $14 million will help restore impacted koala habitat in both bushfire and non-bushfire affected areas and provide targeted funding for koala habitat in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland.