Our Fragile Community
Vast areas of the Southern Highlands evoke a sense of pristine wilderness. And in some ways, it is. Look closely at the sheer-walled escarpments fractured by foreboding waterfalls. The lush rainforests and hidden grottoes. The serpentine waterways that intersect impossibly rugged bushland — woodlands strewn with eucalyptus, banksia and acacia. Natural havens where the silence and solitude are only broken by an overture of bird calls and rumbling skies.
Yet few know of these hidden worlds and of the wildlife habitats that are fast disappearing to incursions caused by our insatiable appetite for forested resources and endless space.
At Native Wildlife Rescue, we believe that the Southern Highlands community has a pivotal role to play in preserving its natural heritage. This includes taking a stand against deforestation and addressing the regulatory actions and threats that impact the fragile wildlife habitats that lie beyond the boundaries of our national parks.
According to the NSW Environment and Heritage Office, the Southern Highlands Shale Forest and Woodland currently support 24 state and nationally-listed threatened species — amphibians, reptiles and birds [including the ‘gang gang’ and glossy cockatoo, turquoise parrot, hooded and scarlet robin and the once robust owl]. Also joining the list are grey-headed flying foxes, yellow-bellied gliders and our iconic koalas.
But much of our native wildlife is already at a crossroad.
For the past thirty years, populations of spotted-tail quolls have been vanishing at a breakneck speed. Now classified as an endangered species [under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999], quoll sightings in the Southern Highlands’ woodlands are now even rarer.
Peer into the immediate future, and you will see identical scenarios playing out with other species. Among them is the critically-endangered regent honeyeater which not only feeds on the nectar from Eucalyptus but also acts as a pollinator for much of our native flora. Conservation sources now estimate that between 800-2000 regent honeyeaters remain in Australia with most living in the box-ironbark woodlands along the Great Divided Range.
In fact, the ecological carnage remains inescapable for much of the region. Since European settlement in the 1830s, the Southern Highlands has lost almost 90 per cent of prime bushlands — in particular, the broad terrain surrounding Morton National Park which was cleared mainly for forestry, agriculture and urban development in the 1960s.
No matter which direction you travel to in the region, you will see complete eco-systems fragmented by roads, fences, power lines, roadside rubbish and an endless expanse of subdivisions and industrial centres.
In the same way, the eucalyptus forests that survived the 2019 | 2020 Green Wattle Creek, Currowan and Morton Fires remain in a perpetual state of chaos. Of the many environmental groups and agencies that are seeking immediate change to the pending wildlife crisis, the federal and state governments are not among them.
The Department of Environment and Energy recently declared that the Southern Highlands Shale Forest and Woodland’s ecological community would not require a recovery and threat abatement plan. Nevertheless, the degradation of land is showing no signs of slowing down as we continue to pillage the vital tracts of prime bushland and fragile ecosystems.
Adding more fuel to the fire is the conflicting legislation and governance over the push for new developments and the management of public land within the framework of the federal, state and local governments.
Disappointingly, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements which was established in response to the mega-fires has failed to acknowledge the issues of mismanagement — the same outcome that resulted from the Royal Commission of 2003. This includes implementing a decisive fire reduction management system to counter optimum growth and combustible fuel loads within the national parks and state forests.
Time is running out and the trickling of conservation efforts including the uprooting of wildlife to far-flung sanctuaries will not save our region’s imperilled species.
Our wildlife is teetering on the edge of oblivion. And when they are gone, they are gone forever.
No other Australian wildlife is more iconic or revered than the koala. The Southern Highlands Koala Conservation Project estimates that over 3,000 koalas inhabit the Southern Highlands’ rugged bushlands, a statistic that constitutes the largest koala population in southern NSW [approximately 10 per cent of the total population in the State].
Recently, WWF claimed that our endangered koalas would be extinct in NSW by 2050.
Even more sobering was a recent estimation of the state’s koala population now believed to be less than 21,000 in numbers. That equates to 40,000 koalas — almost one-third of their population have been forever eradicated.
In 2018, the NSW government released its $45 million Koala strategy to counter the decimation of koala habitats yet the program failed to address their own advisory committee’s core recommendations on the logging of native forests which are vital habitats to koala colonies. Instead, the government designated 77,517 hectares of state forest assigned as one primary hub in northeastern NSW.
Yet the issue is this. Only one-seventh of the koala population live in the region’s national parks and an even smaller percentage in its state forests. Also, koalas survive on various species of eucalyptus leaves that are native to a particular region.
According to the data released by the North Coast Environmental Council and the National Parks Association, the new ‘koala hubs’ covered only 0.2 per cent of the koala population in NSW.
The remaining numbers, which amount to two-thirds of the regional koala population, continue to live on private land.
Even more alarming, the regional developers and foreign investors’ insatiable appetite for resources and space in the Southern Highlands is showing no signs of slowing down; a direction that has left our fragile ecosystems and dwindling koala habitats even more vulnerable.
So where do we go from here?
In 2018, $450,000 was injected into the NSW Saving our Species [SoS] program to help address koala conservation in the Southern Highlands. Working in collaboration with Wingecarribee Shire, the three-year program [2018-19 to 2020-21] includes the employment of a dedicated koala project officer as well as several actions including habitat restoration, landholder and community engagement, fire planning and management, reduction of vehicle strikes and the monitoring and collection of vital data.
Yet the broader issues surrounding the rezoning of prime bushland for urban development along with the Sydney to Canberra corridor remains unresolved. And while it remains unclear how many koalas perished in the apocalyptic fires that ravaged the Southern Highlands in the summer of 2019 |2020, estimates are around 9,000 in NSW alone.
Adding to the statistics was another heartbreaking occurrence across the Victorian border. In Myamym, a member of the public stumbled across several hundred koalas that had either bulldozed to death or left for dead at a eucalyptus plantation. Of those koalas rescued from the fallen piles, nearly all had to be euthanased.
We need to raise with MPs the ineffectiveness of the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, which was created to protect our wildlife from commercial logging. In the same way, we need to build animal crossings at busy junctions where fatalities are recorded; replant more eucalyptus forests and other native trees, and improve research on the rampant organisms that continue to wipe out koala colonies.
The death of one koala is just as significant as the death of thousands. Please support the Australian Koala Foundation and the local veterinarians who assist us.