April 18 - 24, 2021: Issue 490


Pittwater Action to Save Koalas: What you can do to help prevent their extinction

Koala at Mona Vale, 1958. Visit Bayview Koala Sanctuary

Pittwater’s Last Koalas

Many long-term Pittwater residents have stories of local koalas, even in their own back gardens where males grunting in the trees at night during mating season would keep families awake.

One such resident, Bayview environmentalist and filmmaker John Illingsworth, at a recent public forum recalled his experiences with the iconic marsupials - a foretaste of what was to come in later decades as they more and more frequently confronted dogs and cars. 

Mr Illingsworth, who has a natural sciences degree from Macquarie University, said that he clearly recalls koalas at Newport Beach when he was a boy during the 1950s and 60s, sometimes near the shopping centre walking up Robertson Road to Nullaburra Road, where there was a swamp and plenty of thick bush. At that time, there were only a few houses on the slopes and plateau.

“Koalas have to travel from tree to tree as you know,” he told the audience at the Northern Beaches Greens forum at the Nelson Heather Centre, in Warriewood, on April 8. 

“In 1964 I saw a koala attacked by a dog.

“Koalas actually have fearsome claws and the dog was wary, but each time the koala turned to head for a tree the dog was at it.

“Eventually it bolted for a large spotted gum and, at its base, feeling the dog on its neck, the koala spun around but fell on its back at which the dog seized it.

“I beat the dog off and the koala went up the tree, relatively unscathed, but it was without doubt badly shocked.”

Mr Illingsworth later gained experience with koalas, working as an animal handler on the Skippy television series, where he cared for a variety of native animals. Mostly he was on set handling a range of wildlife, including kangaroos, wombats, snakes and sometimes koalas. Otherwise, he looked after the zoo at Duffys Forest, cleaning cages, feeding animals and so on.

Finding koala food was one of Mr Illingworth’s responsibilities and he knew of seven species of eucalypt that they ate in the Duffys Forest area – principally grey gum, blue gum, bangalay and scribbly gum.

“All were scarce save scribbly gum,” he said.

“I was at my wits end to get sufficient variety of leaves for them and had a regular round but often it came back to scribbly.

“When these koalas got 'weepy eye' I put it down to too much scribbly gum.

“Today I know this was chlamydia, probably introduced by a new addition to our tiny koala colony, but in those days we had no knowledge of this disease.

“As you know, chlamydia is a major threat to koalas.”

Mr Illingsworth also recalls an eight-year-old female released back into Angophora Reserve, in Avalon, on November 5, 1989, after treatment at Taronga Zoo for injuries caused when she was bombarded by magpies or currawongs in a grevillea.

“We don't know what happened to this koala but she's gone. She was Pittwater's last koala.

“In places like the Barrenjoey peninsula we have cars and dogs, and people removing eucalypts in favour of foreign species and, ultimately, this means no koalas because we've fragmented their habitat.

“A few good-sized reserves remain such as Angophora Reserve, at 17 hectares, but it's no longer connected to other patches of habitat such as Stapleton Park - a retirement village (Pittwater Palms) was built over the connecting bush corridor.”

The koala inquiry and what the politicians have done

It’s now a long time since anyone’s seen a koala in suburban Pittwater and we know from an inquiry last year that without urgent action, these unique Australian marsupials are doomed to the same fate throughout NSW. The question is: what can we, as ordinary citizens, do to avert this tragedy?

Last year an inquiry into koala populations and habitat in the state provided a serious wake up call to Australians and in fact, worldwide. Its finding, that koalas would disappear in NSW by 2050 without urgent action, was widely reported in the international media.

The NSW Upper House Inquiry recommended 42 pathways to prevent that extinction occurring.

NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the inquiry, was another of the three speakers who addressed the forum of about 70 participants, discussing the problems koalas now face and what everyone can do to protect them.   

Ms Faehrmann said that although the focus of the inquiry was on koalas, they represent the many less well-loved wildlife living in the same habitat. At its outset, the government estimated koalas - a threatened species - numbered around 36,000 in NSW. However, at least 5,000 were lost in the 2019-20 bushfires which destroyed up to 80 per cent of their habitat in some places. 

Evidence presented to the inquiry, after it kicked off in June 2019, showed koalas were already in dire straits as a result of drought before the black summer bushfires. Wildlife carers taking the creatures for treatment at that time were already finding them suffering from severe malnutrition and dehydration due to the increasingly dry landscape they inhabited, Ms Faehrmann said.

Climate change was also having a severe impact, affecting the quality of their food and habitat, but also compounding the severity and threats of other impacts, such as drought and bushfires.

Mismanagement of water resources was another factor, with unsustainable amounts of water, held in massive dams for agriculture and used for mining, responsible for a “systemic de-watering of the country”, she said. 

But the inquiry found another damaging mechanism at work.  The Greens MP stated in the  report’s forward that:

“The ongoing destruction of koala habitat through the clearing of land for agriculture, development, mining and forestry has severely impacted most koala populations in the state over many decades. The committee found that this fragmentation and loss of habitat poses the most serious threat to koala populations and made a number of key recommendations that stronger action must be taken by government to protect and restore koala habitat on both public and private land.”

Once the report was handed down in June 2020, the government set to work on a new koala protection policy.

“There was a heap of consultation, we worked on this new planning policy, the government …  got this new thing in place that was going to make it stricter and that’s what we needed,” Ms Faehrmann told the koala forum.

“We needed to have a new planning policy that made it harder to clear koala habitat; too much was being cleared.

“Basically, any developer could pretty much clear any koala habitat.”

The new guidelines, contained in an updated Koala State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP), would have forced landowners to show that proposed developments would not impact koala habitats. It applied to all private land and required approvals from local councils and the NSW government before developments could go ahead. The new SEPP also increased the number of trees protected as koala habitat from 10 to 123. 

However, Ms Faerhmann said that even while the report was being handed down in June 2020, the timber industry and particularly Boral, was lobbying the National Party to block the new restrictions on logging koala habitat.

“Basically, I saw a lot of lobbying by timber companies in emails, also some legal advice by timber NSW,” she said. 

It was then, in September 2020, that NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro “went ballistic” – saying his party would no longer support Government legislation in Parliament or join party room meetings in opposition to the new rules.

By March this year, NSW Planning Minister Rob Stokes and Environment Minister Matt Kean had caved in to the Nationals and the timber companies, exempting private rural land zoned for farming or forestry from the new SEPP. 

The latest version of the rules was a win for the logging industry Ms Faehrmann said, because two-thirds of koalas live on private rural land. However, she said the new rules had never been about farmers who often altruistically protect koala habitat.

Claims by Mr Stokes that the Coalition government was protecting koalas because it has increased protection of feed trees to 123 were misleading because 80 per cent of land is not covered by the amended SEPP. 

“We cannot let them get away with it,” she said.

“If we can’t save koalas, you really have to wonder can we save ourselves?”

The fight on many fronts

The fight is now occurring on many fronts, not all of them political. Another speaker at the forum, Ian Darbyshire, CEO of the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife, tells of the work his organisation does growing national parks and saving species. The FNPW is a not-for-profit, non-government organisation, established in 1970 with a mission to protect and safeguard Australia's native plants, animals and cultural heritage by raising funds and awareness of Australia's wilderness and wildlife.

Mr Darbyshire notes that Australia has the worst rate of mammalian extinctions anywhere in the world – the foundation lists 507 of our species as in trouble or extinct. As a former head of Tourism NSW, Mr Darbyshire also estimates koalas are worth $3.2 billion to the Australian economy each year.

“If we (Australians) can fix the situation for koalas, then we will have done a lot to fix our bio-diversity,” Mr Darbyshire told the audience.

“We’re saying to governments that we need to measure what we’re doing.

“The rest of the world is looking at us and we need to start doing something about it.”    

His group is supported by public and corporate donations and carries out a range of projects, including acquiring land for new National Parks. After the black summer fires, which burnt more than 12 million hectares of land and killed or displaced more than 3 billion animals, the foundation launched a project to regenerate land providing homes to threatened species such as koalas. It aims to plant one million trees in bushfire affected areas by 2025 and establish community nurseries for the large-scale plantings. Two of these have already been set up in the Hawkesbury and Lismore areas in NSW.  

Mr Derbyshire also said that NSW has more volunteers caring for wildlife than surf lifesavers but believes their work is largely unknown. Many of these carers encountered horrific scenes during the fires, and in their aftermath, the foundation has provided psychological support and 134 grants to as many as 20,000 of these carers across Australia.  Donations to the foundation can be made at https://fnpw.org.au/donations/ to support their important work.

What can we do?

As John Illingsworth notes, it’s important to recognise that the political system is influenced by business donations – and to counter that we must put pressure on the politicians. 

“Our political system is a problem because it's highly responsive to lobbying by powerful vested interests,” Mr Illingsworth told the forum.

“Relatively small political donations of say $10,000 typically secure projects worth millions or even billions - with profits to match, and more than occasionally, severe ecological downside.

“It seems that in NSW it doesn't matter whether it’s an official collecting evidence of illegal land clearing – like Glen Turner at Croppa Creek near Moree, or a native animal like a koala in a tree that's blocking NSW Forestry – all are swept aside: Glen Turner murdered for performing his function, the koala for its.”

Pittwater is in a unique position in that our local MP, Mr Stokes, is also the NSW Planning Minister, responsible for the rules that will decide the fate of the state’s koalas. So, if you can do nothing else for koalas, it’s worth phoning or emailing our local MP (and encouraging friends and neighbours to do the same) and in your own words asking for:

  • No more clearing of koala habitat, including on private rural forestry and farmland.
  • Protect the forest that is home to the state’s healthiest koala colony in south-west Sydney - at Mount Gilead currently under threat of development.
  • End Native Forest Logging.
  • Create safe koala road crossings.
  • Set up the Great Koala National Park.

Mr Stokes can be emailed at: www.nsw.gov.au/nsw-government/ministers/minister-for-planning-and-public-spaces or telephone his office on 9999 3599 (electoral office) or 8574 6707 (Ministerial office). 

On a local level, we can also make sure we aren’t part of the problem, “because we all are to some degree; there's simply too many of us doing too much stuff, often with machines that magnify the damage”, Mr Illingsworth said.

We might have lost our koalas in Pittwater, but we can help other wildlife by regenerating the land and protecting our local old-growth trees which provide habitat. Mr Illingsworth suggests one way to do this is by joining a local bushcare group. Local organisations such as Pittwater Natural Heritage Association and a new Pittwater group, Canopy Keepers, are also well-worth supporting.

More widely, Save Sydney’s Koalas and the Nature Conservation Council are also running active campaigns to raise awareness of the marsupials’ plight and put pressure on governments to increase their protection. Save Sydney’s Koalas, who can be seen on Facebook, are focused on protecting the healthiest koalas in the state who live at Mt Gilead in the Campbelltown area – currently under threat of development for new housing by Lendlease.

Northern Beaches Greens are also campaigning for the Koala SEPP to be upgraded, and have been holding protests outside Mr Stokes’ office on Friday mornings. We also hope Pittwater locals will support other koala rallies in central Sydney - likely to be coming up in the next few months following cancellation of an earlier event due to torrential rain. More information about these events can be found on the Greens Northern Beaches or Cate Faehrmann’s Facebook pages. And, of course, we would be delighted for you to join our group as well.

The future for koalas might look bleak from some angles but given the blueprint for their protection provided by the NSW Parliamentary inquiry and depth of community feeling, there is plenty of scope for optimism. Ms Faehrmann wrote in the inquiry report that:

“The only way our children's grandchildren will see a koala in the wild in NSW will be if the government acts upon the committee's recommendations.”

The important thing to know is that each of us can help play a part in confronting the very real threats to their survival. 

Miranda Korzy
Northern Beaches Greens

Koala Forum at Warriewood - Speakers John Illingsworth, NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the inquiry, and Ian Darbyshire, CEO of the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife. 


By John Illingsworth, Pittwater Pathways

Bayview-Mona Vale Koala Sanctuary

Date found in the old record - 16/02/1962.

Published by British Pathé - ''Sir Edward Hallstrom with two companions strolling through his sanctuary where he tries to preserve breeds of animals that like the Koala are near extinction [in Pittwater]. ''

More in Bayview Koala Sanctuary and Sir Edward John Lees Hallstrom and Fires Last Straw For Koalas: Extinction Now Imminent Unless You Speak Up - November 2019