Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley says the Brandy Hill rock quarry expansion, overall, will provide a good outcome for koalas. But the outcome for koalas isn't a good one - not yet. I could start this by putting on my science hat to challenge the scientific veracity of this decision, conclusion and methodology. But, to do this would be to ignore a far more fundamental shortcoming of the project, a shortcoming that remains a blind spot for too many organisations. I'm referring to the social license.
Hanson, the quarry operator, has now satisfied all the regulatory licenses to go ahead and clear critical koala habitat. But do they have the social license to operate? A social license for Brandy Hill can only be achieved once the project has the ongoing approval and broad acceptance of the local, national and international community.
Such a license is based on trust and goodwill. From that perspective, one can argue that Hanson does not yet have that license. Many organisations are learning that just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Rio Tinto discovered after their destruction of the Juukan Gorge Caves and 46,000 years of Indigenous heritage that you can have all the approvals to operate, but if you don't have the social license you can cause considerable damage to your brand, and ultimately impact your bottom line.
Minister Ley's decision to approve the project could signify to the international community that the Australian federal government does not really value koalas. This comes at a time when our most respected naturalist, Sir David Attenborough has said: "We should be in no doubt. Biodiversity loss, the destruction of nature, is as grave an issue as climate change. They both work together to destabilise the world we rely upon".
It's a shameful fact that since the European occupation of Australia we as nation have manifested the worst mammal extinction record in the world. This has only been exacerbated by the 2019-2020 bushfires in which more than 5000 koalas were killed. In response to the bushfires, the Australian community significantly supported the recovery of koalas, and given the devastating losses, the koala has been put forward to have its threatened status upgraded from "vulnerable" to "endangered".
To the community it may not matter that there are conditions of approval attached to this project. This decision is contrary to the support given to koalas during the bushfires by approving the removal of precious unburned habitat. That is not a message we as Australians should be sending to the international community, or to our children.
Many people say this project does not pass the pub test, and for me personally, I drink at this pub. If you had seen what I have in my research, you'd know we don't have that many koalas left. If you had walked through Port Stephens listening for the call of a male koala as I have, you would understand why this decision was gut-wrenching. If you ask Save Port Stephens Koalas, or other conservation scientists, clearing koala habitat will always fail the pub test. However, at a different pub, Hanson's initiative to recreate 74 hectares of koala habitat while providing financial support to some families at a time of economic uncertainty passes the test. Like any good night at a pub, finding common ground is where a good conversation starts. The 74-hectare offer of koala habitat to mitigate the impact suggests that on paper everyone wants the same thing, to protect this significant koala population. To achieve a good outcome for koalas will require goodwill from all stakeholders.
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Now my science hat. Hanson has a unique opportunity to build goodwill by funding a meaningful koala habitat restoration model for a significant koala population. If successful, this could offer a blueprint to mitigate koala habitat loss on the east coast of Australia. This could be something that all stakeholders can be proud of. Certainly, building a koala corridor from the ground up is an interesting scientific prospect. This type of conservation intervention is completely experimental. Minster Ley, nobody can claim definitively that this will lead to a good outcome for koalas - even with the best expertise. What will be important for Hanson to deliver the project, and look after their social license, will be sound and transparent delivery of the conditions of approval. It will require scientists to ask the right questions. How do we achieve a corridor to support koalas? How do you create koala habitat from scratch? Will koalas use the habitat? If so, when? How do you track koalas? Is the intervention going to impact the koala population?
Koalas are very difficult to locate, but we are working on solutions for that. My own research in Port Stephens in 80 hectare plots of bush found that spotlighting (detecting koala eyeshine at night with a headtorch) surpasses scat-based methods for directly locating koalas. We also went a step further, using drones with thermal cameras to become even more efficient. We located koalas with our drone at a rate of one koala every two hours, while spotlighting it can take seven hours for the same result.
If we do it right, we have a model that can be applied more broadly. If we do it wrong we are putting more pressure on the already threatened koala population, and burning the goodwill that the social contract represents in the bargain. Goodwill and trust can still be earned, and all stakeholders can still come together for the Port Stephens koala, which is an icon that is worth saving.
Dr Ryan Witt is a conservation scientist and Conjoint Lecturer at the University of Newcastle
Dive deeper: Port Stephens koalas and the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion:
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plans will destroy 50 hectares of koala habitat(January 15, 2020)
- Brandy Hill residents fear for koala population if quarry expands(June 30, 2020)
- Resident bid to save koalas from Brandy Hill Quarry expansion(August 21, 2020)
- Koala experts from University of Newcastle urge government to consider impact on habitat in expansion approval(September 3, 2020)
- Federal government under pressure to reject Brandy Hill quarry expansion(September 6, 2020)
- Brandy Hill Quarry expansion plan delayed, Brandy Hill and Seaham Action Group say proposal could disrupt koala habitat(September 7, 2020)
- Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley visits Brandy Hill and scene of koala controversy(September 30, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas vows to keep pressure on as Federal Environment Minister delays Brandy Hill quarry decision(October 8, 2020)
- Save Port Stephens Koalas campaign rolls on with Brandy Hill Hanson quarry decision delay(October 8, 2020)
- Koala habitat to be cleared for controversial Brandy Hill quarry extension, approved by Environment Minister Sussan Ley (October 27, 2020)
- Premier Gladys Berejiklian's gifts Port Macquarie with a Koala hospital expansion as Port Stephens gets heartbreak(October 28, 2020)
- Wildlife conservation scientist: Brandy Hill quarry expansion into koala habitat 'not a message that we want to be sending' (October 28, 2020)