Riverina conservationists are locked in debate over the NSW government’s proposed koala protection measures.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced earlier this month that the statewide strategy will increase existing koala reserves across 24,538 hectares of state forest. But none of that area exists inside the Riverina.
The strategy will also target common roadkill spots, and introduce koala hospitals around the state.
Advocates say the measures are not going far enough. Nature Conservation Council of NSW spokesperson James Tremain went so far as to call the new measures a ‘smokescreen’.
“We’ll always be in favour of measures that protect koalas,” Mr Tremain said.
“But this is a bit of smoke and mirrors, because the areas [the NSW government] has pointed towards are not the areas where koalas are actually being affected by things like habitat loss and logging deforestation.”
Senior ecologist at the National Parks Association of NSW, Dr Oisin Sweeney says the proposed strategies do not address the unique problems facing individual koala populations, especially in the Riverina.
“The koala strategy is inadequate for conservation statewide, because it’s not really addressing the problems across the state,” he said.
There’s really nothing in it a that’s going to be done west of the divide or even south of the southern highlands.Dr Sweeney
A colony of about 50 to 100 koalas live in Narrandera common. They were re-introduced in the 1970s after the original population died out.
Ken Murphy, chair of the Narrandera Koala Regeneration Centre, describes the Riverina koala population as “quiet achievers”, bucking the dire trends of the more northern populations.
He believes the state government’s strategies have intentionally overlooked the Riverina.
“It’s a healthy population with strong numbers,” Mr Murphy said.
“We had a problem with roadkill some years back, but since the floppy top fence was installed [a decade ago], there hasn’t been much issue.
“They are pretty secure among the redgums here, so I’d say our population has as much protection as they need right now.”
Dr Sweeney is concerned the lack of government attention at this point could still prove shortsighted.
“A huge issue for the Narrandera population is climate change,” Dr Sweeney said.
“Koalas do very poorly when the temperature spikes above 30 degrees for a few consecutive days.
It has been a hot and dry season and that often leads to extreme weather events, like bushfires, and that can prove catastrophic for koalas.Dr Sweeney
The Naranderra colony is what ecologists term an ‘island population’. It exists inside a patch of vegetation surrounded by cleared pastoral land.
“When extreme weather comes, koalas move east towards the coastline, but [in Narrandera], they’re sort of stuck where they are without any vegetation corridors to help them move,” Dr Sweeney said.
“If they’re concentrated like that, it makes them vulnerable during a fire. They’ll be gone and that would be a tragedy.”
Dr Sweeney is also cautious about the koala hospitals.
“The best you could say is that the hospitals will be a band-aid solution,” he said.
When they’re injured, there’s a hospital for them to go to, but once they’re better they may not have a habitat to go back into.Dr Sweeney
If that happens, Dr Sweeney says, it will not be a viable option to just move the displaced koalas to other colonies.
“I think we often think of koalas as being a bit dopey or tranquil, but they are actually highly stressed animals,” he said.
“It’s not really an option to grab them and say ‘okay fella, we’ll move you to where you’re more convenient.
“We should be making every effort to keep them in their colonies, and instead looking into strategies to help them move eastward safely, if they need to.”