Conservationists are accusing the Australian government of “signing the death warrant” for around 200 koalas whose habitat will be devastated by planned highway construction in the state of New South Wales.
“Unfortunately a Population Viability Study conducted in July 2014 indicated that if the road went ahead, this population of koalas will likely go extinct within the next 20-25 years,” Rebecca Thompson-Jones, a spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, told The Huffington Post in an email.
Australian environment minister Josh Frydenburg approved the construction on July 19, the same day that he assumed office. However, the decision only became public on Aug. 22, to the dismay of animal protection groups like IFAW and Friends of the Koala.
The construction is part of a 96-mile upgrade of the Pacific Highway between the towns of Woolgooga and Ballina. Specifically, animal advocates and environmentalists are opposed to Section 10 of the highway, a four-lane, eight-mile expanse planned to run between the towns of Wardell and Ballina, Thompson-Jones said. That’s because this portion of the route will cut directly through the middle of the habitat of around 200 koalas, known as “Ballina’s koalas.”
Clearing for the construction will destroy half of the koala’s food trees, Phillips told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in April. But food source destruction isn’t the only peril the highway will bring. The commotion caused by cutting down the trees, as well as the highway construction, could have fatal consequences.
“Koalas often get panicked and stressed and will not move, sometimes dying as a result of the stress or getting ill or starving,” Thompson-Jones said. “Some of these koalas will be separated from their social group of koalas and have to find each other.”
Stress also reduces how much koalas reproduce and makes them more susceptible to the effects of illnesses like retrovirus, chlamydia and pneumonia, she said. And on the ground, searching for new trees to live in, they’re more vulnerable to attacks from predators. And finally, both the construction itself and the existence of the highway will increase the risk of vehicle strikes — a major source of deaths for koalas around the country.
However, New South Wales’ Roads and Maritime Services Department contends that activists are overblowing the concerns and the koalas will be fine. They conducted their own analysis, released in February, and found that the highway would reduce the koala population by less than 10 percent, News.com.au reported. The department also stated that the koalas are already dying off, with or without a highway.
Plans to offset damage done to the koalas include fencing to keep them off the roadway, wildlife crossings to provide a safe way for animals to get across the road and the planting of about half a square mile of revegetation to make up for the trees lost, according to an RMS statement.
But activists say that’s not going to cut it. For one thing, koalas are highly territorial: It’s unlikely many of them will move to a new area of their own accord, Thompson-Jones said.
She called the revegetation strategy “misleading,” noting that it includes plants which studies have shown the local koala population rarely eat, and one variety that’s not local. On top of that, the plantings will take between four to seven years before they’re even viable for the koalas to eat, she said.
And none of the RMS’ plans will mitigate the stress and immediate disturbance the construction will cause.
While cute and iconic koalas have grabbed most of the media attention surrounding the road, they aren’t the only species potentially threatened.
“Section 10 of the highway is currently known to be home to over 30 state and-or nationally threatened species,” Thompson-Jones said. In particular, conservationists have voiced concern for the long-nosed potoroo, a native marsupial that thrives in what is now the highway’s path.
“The area where the Highway is going through,” Thompson-Jones said, “is a tranquil paradise.”