Scientists are now trying to “read” 10 years of koala “bellows” and using unmanned drones in the latest attempts to understand one of Queensland’s most embarrassing stories: the steady march towards extinction of the south-east Queensland koala.
The research – and its impact on Queensland’s tree-clearing rates – will be a major election issue at the next state election.
That extinction tale will most likely be confirmed in the final version of Queensland’s most significant koala research paper – from the Koala Expert Panel – now due next month, in August 2017.
The expert panel has, in its February 2017 interim study, already proposed three major thrusts to try to prevent the extinction of the koala in south-east Queensland within 10-15 years.
First is a model local law – for all south-east Queensland councils – to control dogs.
The second is setting up two smaller koala “precincts” (hundreds of hectares) as localised open-plan koala zoos in south-east Queensland where tourists can see koalas and where koala research can continue.
One of these sites is at Daisy Hill – where koala populations are already in decline – while a second location on Brisbane’s northern fringes, is yet to be chosen.
The third major policy is setting aside much larger koala “conservation landscapes”, sized in the thousands of hectares, most likely outside south-east Queensland.
The February 2017 Interim Report showed that 19,000 hectares of koala habitat had been cleared between 2008 and 2015 and the rate of clearing was accelerating.
It showed koala habitat clearing was highest in Logan, Ipswich and Moreton Bay council areas and lowest in Scenic Rim, Noosa and Sunshine Coast Regional council areas.
It did however show that more than $34 million was spent buying koala habitat until 2015, buying more than 30,000 hectares of land.
However some land is to be revegetated with koala trees and some is existing koala habitat.
Meanwhile Environment Minister Steven Miles used his appearance at Estimates Hearings to release the findings of Queensland’s Species Technical Committee 2017 report into the impact of land clearing on Queensland’s threatened species.
He also announced a small sum – $80,000 – had been given to the University of Queensland to use bioacoustics to measure male koala “bellows” to help track them as their habitat became increasingly fragmented.
Koala researcher Bill Ellis explained koalas “vocalised’ or “bellowed” loudly during mating season from August to December.
Their bioacoustics research will use detectors placed across Queensland.
“A koala ‘bellow’ is not only an individual signature, it also tells you how big the animal is and by looking at the spatial dynamics of where the animals is, we are able to work out what that bellow does to a koala in a local area,” he said.
Much of the noise is from serenading koalas, both male and female, Dr Ellis said.
“There is a lot of information in the bellows they produce,” he said.
“You can tell different individuals (koala) apart.
“But it does seem clear that that much of the bellows is serenade. It does seem that it is a call for available females to attend to that male.
“But it is also advice to other males about the size of the male that they may encounter. And if you hear a bellow from a massive koala in a nearby tree you are better going in a different direction.”
Mr Miles said the Species Technical Committee’s report findings – which he commissioned after parliament rejected Labor’s land clearing legislation in mid-2016 – found that land clearing was already responsible for making two Queensland plant species extinct.
“But more importantly it is leading and threatening process for more than 700 plants and animals,” he said.
“That is why it is so important that we find a way to limit land clearing.”
The issue will be major point of difference between the two major parties at the next state election.
An LNP spokesman said the party, which opposes changes to the existing legislation, would not change their policy, despite the Species Technical Committee report findings.
“Our vegetation management laws currently strike the right balance between protecting our environment and allowing farmers to manage their land.”
Steven Miles has confirmed Labor will take its amendments to the LNP’s existing tree-clearing laws – the Vegetation Management Act – to the state election.