On the shores of Cleveland in south-east Queensland, a small colony of koalas snooze in the tall paperbark and blue gum trees that dot the local parks and streets.
Below them, the busy port at Toondah Harbour sees ferry passengers come and go until after dark, when the koalas emerge for their nightly neighbourhood wander.
The koalas have adapted to the urban environment here.
They can navigate the suburban streets to find their favourite trees, and are adept at hiding.
If you're lucky enough, you might spot a couple of koalas in the same tree. Some of them have been given names by locals, like Tyler and Ruby.
Over the years, they’ve found ways to survive and even thrive in this area.
But a proposal to build a luxury marina and high-rise apartment complex in the area threatens to undo all this. The Toondah Harbour precinct proposed by Walker Corporation would bring 20 years of construction and up to 10,000 new residents into the koala colony’s habitat.
Debbie Pointing, a local resident and president of the Koala Action Group, describes it as “a death sentence” for the koalas.
In the mid-1990’s, the Cleveland colony was part of a thriving network of koala populations — known as the Koala Coast — in south-east Queensland. Home to more than 6,000 koalas, it was once regarded as one of the most significant koala populations in Australia.
By 2014, however, the Queensland government had recorded an 80% decline in numbers.
Debbie says at the centre of all threats to koalas is habitat destruction.
“Our koalas have a lot of disease in the Redlands, compared to other areas along the east coast,” she says.
“Habitat destruction is the predominant precursor for disease, because generally disease will occur when they're stressed.
“Vehicle strikes and dog attacks — they are more likely to occur when koalas get displaced, when they lose their home. So habitat loss is kind of the pinnacle [of threats], and everything else follows on from there.
When the Walker proposal was announced, Debbie and the Koala Action Group commissioned a team of ecologists to track the koalas that live in the Toondah Harbour precinct.
“Cleveland has always been a stronghold for koalas, so we knew there'd be some koalas down there,” Debbie says.
“But it was not until we actually embarked on this tracking project that we realised just how many koalas were in that area.”
The team put GPS trackers on eight koalas — though many more were spotted in the area. They observed them for 12 months, learning how they move across the landscape, which trees they use, and how they interact.
Many have heard of Toondah Harbour and the impact it will have on the surrounding wetlands. If approved, the project will destroy 42 hectares of Ramsar-listed wetland providing habitat to numerous migratory shore birds, including the critically-endangered Eastern Curlew.
But few are as familiar with the threat to the local koala population on shore.
“The building phase alone will be 20 years. It's going to increase the traffic in that area with tradies and trucks.
"And then of course, they're planning for up to 10,000 people to call that little area home in the future.
“With that increase in building activity, and then the people, it's a death sentence for those koalas. There's no way that they can survive.”
Debbie says Australia needs an independent assessor to oversee the approval of large developments under Australia’s national environment law — the EPBC Act. This was recommended by Professor Graeme Samuel in his final report following the independent review of the EPBC Act.
“Especially when the federal government has already been advised — by its own scientific people — that this development will cause irreversible damage to the Ramsar wetland. Yet the environment minister can still go ahead and give it the green light to go to that next stage.
“It still just amazes me that we can treat a world-iconic animal so abysmally."
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