Federal environment minister Sussan Ley visited Blackheath today to reinforce the government's decision to list koalas on Australia's east coast as endangered.
"There have been many pressures on the koala. The Black Summer fires, of course, was a tipping point. But we know the koala is vulnerable to climate change and to disease," Ms Ley said at Govetts Leap Lookout.
"So one of the things we're investing in as part of $74million we've already allocated for this priority species is about learning more about how to have disease-free populations, and how to combat chlamydia which in some parts of the country is higher than 50 per cent in koala populations."
The decision to list koalas as an endangered species on Australia's east coast, instead of vulnerable, is a grim but important outcome, according to animal welfare and conservation groups.
The decision means koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory will now be classified as endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.
IFAW Wildlife campaign manager Josey Sharrad said koalas are an international and national icon, but were living on a knife edge before the Black Summer bushfires with numbers in severe decline due to land-clearing, drought, disease, car strikes and dog attacks.
"The bushfires were the final straw. This must be a wake-up call to Australia and the government to move much faster to protect critical habitat from development and land-clearing and seriously address the impacts of climate change," said Miss Sharrad
WWF-Australia conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch said the endangered listing must be a turning point for koalas and called on federal and state governments to commit to doubling koala numbers on the east coast by 2050.
"Koalas have gone from no-listing to vulnerable to endangered within a decade. That is a shockingly fast decline. Today's decision is welcome, but it won't stop koalas from sliding towards extinction unless it's accompanied by stronger laws and landholder incentives to protect their forest homes," said Dr Blanch.
In welcoming the minister's decision, Australian Conservation Foundation nature campaign manager Basha Stasak said many people "will be very upset to learn that the once ubiquitous koala is another step closer to extinction in Queensland, NSW and the ACT".
"We are so used to koalas being central to our image of Australia, but the truth is our furry friends are in serious strife.
"Research by ACF recently revealed that the federal government has approved the clearing of more than 25,000 hectares - the equivalent of about 500,000 average house blocks - of koala habitat since the species was declared 'vulnerable' to extinction ten years ago," she said.
"Australia's national environment laws are so ineffective they have done little to stem the ongoing destruction of koala habitat in Queensland and NSW since the species was supposedly protected a decade ago."
Speaking at the announcement in Blackheath, Dr Kellie Leigh, executive director of not-for-profit organisation Science for Wildlife, said they have been working with local stakeholders since the Black Summer fires to better understand the impact of fire on koalas.
"We have always known fire was a threat to koalas, particularly in reserves and protected areas, but never at the scale we saw that summer."
Dr Leigh welcomed the spotlight on the local koala population.
"We do have koalas in the greater Blue Mountains World Heritage area and we also have them down in the developed area around the Hawkesbury. So we have koalas facing the threats that a lot of koala populations face," she said.
Liberal Party candidate for Macquarie, Sarah Richards, welcomed the minister to the Blue Mountains and the government's recognition of the koala plight.
"It's a responsibility of any government to listen to the experts and the announcement today shows they've acted on it," she said.
But Federal Member for Macquarie, Susan Templeman, accused Ms Richards of "breathtaking hypocrisy" on the issue.
"Habitat loss is among the most significant threats to koalas, which is why it's breathtaking hypocrisy to see the Liberal candidate jumping on the koala bandwagon when she led the Liberal charge on her Hawkesbury Council to opt into the NSW Rural Boundary Clearing Code without first consulting experts about how this would affect koala habitat," she said. "That code allows for 25 metres of boundary clearing and could directly destroy essential koala habitat and corridors. So, this is a case of saying one thing in the Mountains and doing the opposite in the Hawkesbury.
"We want to see the koala survive and thrive in our region, but for this to happen the government needs to take meaningful action on habitat loss, bushfire recovery and climate change."
But Ms Richards described the comments from the Labor MP as "scurrilous".
"As a councillor and RFS volunteer I felt it my duty to vote for the Rural Boundry Clearing Code, which simply allows for rural home owners to create a fire break if they are threatened by fire. To date, not a single tree has been knocked down and no koalas have been harmed. Additionally, there are severe penalties in place for abusing these regulations," she said.
Greens Macquarie candidate, Joel MacKay, said: "The listing of koalas is heartbreaking but it should never have got to this point. Even before the Black Summer bushfires devastated their habitat all along the east coast, koalas have been in danger of becoming extinct. The Morrison and Perrottet governments must do everything they can to ensure that koalas don't go extinct.
"The upcoming federal election is an opportunity to remind the government of a simple fact: saving koalas from extinction means protecting their habitat. No more of it can be destroyed. Simple.
"This means no more mines, quarries or property developers being allowed to clear, bulldoze or mine in koala habitat."