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The Great Koala Debate

Lessons from the Parliamentary
Inquiry into Koala Populations

From June 2019 to June 2020, a parliamentary inquiry investigated the state of koala populations in NSW. This interactive is a guide into the inquiry and its strongest recommendation to ensure the future of koalas: the Great Koala National Park.

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Inquiry Context

The inquiry committee, comprised of Liberal, Labor, Nationals, Animal Justice and Greens members, received 330 public submissions.

Submissions came from NSW Government, Forestry Corporation of NSW, The Australian Workers Union, Timber NSW, WWF, WIRES, Environmental Defenders Office NSW, local councils, koala scientists, and others.

The inquiry report, released in June 2020, revealed that under current management methods, koalas will become extinct in NSW before 2050. But, it also emphasised that extinction was not inevitable. The report listed 42 state-level recommendations to ensure a thriving future for koalas.

NSW Chief Scientist releases a report on declining koala populations in NSW
Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 introduces various land management and biodiversity reforms
Koala Strategy launched by NSW Government
NSW parliamentary inquiry into koala populations launched
Inquiry report released.
NSW Nationals Party threatens to split the Coalition over koala policy.

Recent Events


Click underlined items to toggle on map.

Highlighted on the map are koala hubs — 100 000 ha of NSW's highest quality koala habitat. Many are also urban development hotspots.
Just 16% of koala hubs are currently protected as national park.
19% is NSW state forest, open for logging and urban development.
And 65% is on private land, where conservation is most complex.
A quarter of the hubs were scorched in the 2019-20 'black summer' bushfires.

Counting Koalas

Nobody knows exactly how many koalas are left in NSW. Subpopulations are varied and non-uniformly distributed across the state, so observations in one area cannot be generalised to others. Data and collection methods also aren’t standardised.

Inquiry submissions mostly cited a study estimating 36,000 NSW koalas as of 2012. The same model projected a decrease to 26,640 by 2030. However, a more recent investigation revises this projection as between 12,276–25,740.

Because of the uncertainty in koala counts, ecologists prefer two other metrics: Area of Occupancy (AOO) and the Extent of Occurrence (EOO).

NSW's Fading Koalas

Over three koala
generations, the
EOO will shrink
by 30% and the
AOO will fall 50%
Extent of Occurence (EOO)
Total geographic
range of sightings
Area of Occupancy (AOO)
Proportion of EOC
occupied by koalas
“[The area of occupancy's] decline is so fast ... it does not matter whether you have 5, 10 or 50 thousand koalas ... it warrants recognition of this animal as endangered at a State level already.”
— Inquiry submission from Dr Stephen Phillips, Managing Director & Principal Research Scientist of Biolink
“Nature is the number one reason people visit our area [and] seeing a wild koala is one of the primary goals”
— Inquiry submission from Kevin Evans and Robert Bentley,
 accommodation owners in Bellingen

Koala decline means economic decline

According to the NSW Government, koalas create over 9,000 jobs and contribute $1.1–2.5B to Australia's economy each year. So while the state’s three-year $44.7M Koala Strategy is significant, annually it equates to just 1.35% of the revenue koalas provide.

When the world looks to Australia, it looks for koalas — and seeing one in the wild is an experience only we can offer.

Koala contribution to Economy
NSW Investment in Koala Strategy

Cultural Gold

From cartoons to commercials, koalas are an icon of Australian country and culture – part of who we are.

Indigenous Significance

Koalas hold Indigenous cultural significance. The Dharawal people tell the story of how the koala helped row the boat that brought them to Australia. For Bidjara people, the koala transformed the land from barren desert to lush forest. For other Aboriginal peoples, the koala created the first rainbow, or lost its tail to a kangaroo.

— From the book Koala: Origins of an Icon by Stephen Jackson
There are strong imperatives to protect koalas, so why are there so few remaining?
Death by 1000 cuts

Overwhelmingly, the inquiry report found that loss and fragmentation of habitat over time is the major reason for declining koala numbers. Koala habitat is lost to development projects, logging, agricultural land clearing and mine sites. No habitat means no koalas.

Magnified threats

Losing their home grounds, koalas are forced into suboptimal habitat where koalas can become malnourished and dehydrated. These environments worsen with droughts and a warming climate.

Without large forests to live in and wide forested corridors to travel through, koalas searching for food, water or shelter become more vulnerable to dog attacks and vehicle strikes. High-quality habitat is the koala’s only armour.

Disease, particularly chlamydia, has also contributed to koala decline.

What has the government done to manage koala habitat?


Successive government policies have, as one submission put it, “cut down trees with one hand and picked up injured koalas with the other”.

For instance, the Planning Policy for Koala Habitat 2019 aimed to “reverse the current trend of koala population decline”, yet it exempted major state developments from koala-related obligations. It also exempted projects smaller than 1 ha, ignoring the cumulative impact of many small developments over time. Further, under the Local Land Services Act 2013 landowners were merely required to “self-assess” koala habitat before clearing land.

How can we protect koala populations from habitat loss and fragmentation?
The inquiry report made 42 policy recommendations for the NSW Government.

to read.
Regarding habitat preservation, these fall into three categories.

Recommendations 5 and 41 are most alike in this group — that the NSW Government create a Georges River Koala National Park (5) and that it investigate the establishment of the Great Koala National Park (41).

Strategically converting state forest to national park will protect large areas of connected koala habitat forever. And, because private landholders are less affected, it’s a simpler legislative process. The government can adopt these recommendations fast, without burning through state resources.

In the following slides, we look at the arguments for and against the establishment of these parks.

Recommendation 1: Urgently engage the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer to, in consultation with the NSW Koala Advisory Panel and Forestry Corporation of NSW, consider and determine the most appropriate method of surveying koala numbers, and that this method become the standard across all government authorities.
Recommendation 2: Urgently prioritise the protection of koala habitat and corridors in the planning and implementation stages of urban growth areas.
Recommendation 3: Fund and support local councils to conserve koala habitat, including by identifying pockets of urban bushland to include in the State's protected area network.
Recommendation 4: Together with Campbelltown City Council, ensure the protection of the koala colony and habitat on the Figtree Hill site before allowing any further development.
Recommendation 5: Create a Georges River Koala National Park to provide secure habitat for the South Western Sydney koala population.
Recommendation 6: Rule out opening up old growth forests in the state forest reserve for logging.
Recommendation 7: Consider the impacts of logging in all public native (non-plantation) forests in the context of enabling koala habitat to be identified and protected by a combination of transferring land to national parks or inclusion in Forest Management Zone 2, where appropriate.
Recommendation 8: Establish new plantations on already cleared land of low biodiversity importance to reduce future reliance on native forest logging
Recommendation 9: Ensure the protection of the koala colony and habitat before allowing any further development at the Shenhua Watermark mine site.
Recommendation 10: Provide additional funding and support to community groups, so that they can plant trees and regenerate bushland along koala and wildlife corridors and explore mechanisms to protect these corridors in-perpetuity.
Recommendation 11: Factor in climate change as a key consideration in the drafting of all relevant legislation and planning strategies and ensure climate change mitigation is a core component of all strategies to save the koala in New South Wales.
Recommendation 12: Ensure that the combination of underpasses, overpasses and exclusion fencing along roads is incorporated into both the retrofitting of existing infrastructure and new development in areas of known koala habitat.
Recommendation 13: Urgently incorporate an underpass and overpass on Appin Road suitable for koalas and other wildlife with appropriate wildlife corridors at both entrance points.
Recommendation 14: That the Roads and Maritimes Services allocate appropriate and sufficient funds for the ongoing maintenance and management of exclusion fencing along roads.
Recommendation 15: Urgently investigate the utilisation of core koala habitat on private land and in State forests to replenish koala habitat lost in the bushfires.
Recommendation 16: Urgently prioritise the restoration and replenishment of koala habitat lost to bushfire in national parks and publicly release a plan to do this.
Recommendation 17: Ensure that in planning for future bushfires, conservation values and the protection of koala habitat is given greater priority.
Recommendation 18: Support the establishment of a well-resourced network of wildlife hospitals in key areas of the state, including the North Coast, North-West, Blue Mountains, South West Sydney, Southern Tablelands and South Coast, staffed by suitably qualified personnel and veterinarians, including funding where appropriate.
Recommendation 19: That the NSW Rural Fire Service, in conjunction with key wildlife organisations, develop statewide standards for access to fire grounds by wildlife rescuers before the 2020-2021 bushfire season and support wildlife rescue groups in completing fire awareness training.
Recommendation 20: Allocate funding to explore the use of drones and koala detection dogs for the rescue of wildlife from fire grounds, to allow both approaches to be employed in the next fire season.
Recommendation 21: Work collaboratively with Indigenous fire practitioners to document the benefits of cultural burning practices.
Recommendation 22: Allocate additional funds to the Hotspots Fire Project and the Firesticks Alliance to address resourcing challenges and to allow these projects to undertake more programs with communities across NSW.
Recommendation 23: Ensure that koala habitat selected for conservation on public land is of high quality and needs protection.
Recommendation 24: Increase funding to local councils to support the implementation of local koala conservation initiatives.
Recommendation 25: Urgently approve comprehensive koala plans of management previously submitted to the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment in a timely and transparent manner.
Recommendation 26: In finalising the State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2019 framework, strengthen the ability of consent authorities to protect koala habitat.
Recommendation 27: That all councils with koala populations be required to develop comprehensive koala plans of management in a timely manner.
Recommendation 28: Publish the final State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) Guideline as soon as practicable.
Recommendation 29: Increase resources to local councils to support them in conducting mapping required for comprehensive koala plans of management.
Recommendation 30: In the Private Native Forestry Review:
– require consideration to be given to whether private native forestry plans are consistent with the objects of the Private Native Forestry Codes of Practice before such plans are approved; and
– require that the objects of Private Native Forestry Codes of Practice be amended to refer to the protection of biodiversity, water quality and soil quality.
Recommendation 31: Assess the interaction between legacy Private Native Forestry plans and koala plans of management to ensure core koala habitat is protected.
Recommendation 32: Provide additional funding to the NSW Environment Protection Authority to expand its compliance capabilities in the area of private native forestry.
Recommendation 33: Amend the Local Land Services Act 2013 to reinstate legal thresholds so that its application improves or maintains environmental outcomes and protects native vegetation of high conservation value.
Recommendation 34: Review the impact on koala habitat of the application of regulated land and self-assessment frameworks under the Local Land Services Act 2013.
Recommendation 35: Adopt all of the descriptions made by the Natural Resources Commission in its 2019 Report on Land Management.
Recommendation 36: Investigate the cost of purchasing the 18,565 koala species credits currently available in the biodiversity credit market, and facilitate their purchase and retirement from the market over the next two years.
Recommendation 37: Review the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 in relation to the Biodiversity Offsets Scheme with particular regard to:
– amending its objectives to ensure all offsets meet the standard of 'no net loss or better'
– prohibiting the ability to offset high quality koala habitat
– ensuring all offsets are 'like for like'
– imposing location restrictions on koala offsets
– removing the ability to make payments in lieu of offsets
– removing the ability of mining companies to delay offsets until project completion.
Recommendation 38: Ensure the Biodiversity Conservation Trust is adequately resourced to allow it to meet demand for its services within the area of private land conservation.
Recommendation 39: Increase incentives available to private landholders under the Conservation Partners Program.
Recommendation 40: Work with willing landholders to identify koala habitat that is of outstanding biodiversity value under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 in order to facilitate more koala habitat on private land being protected.
Recommendation 41: Investigate the establishment of the Great Koala National Park.
Recommendation 42: Ensure that the NSW Koala Strategy: Bushfire Recovery Plan contains as its key focus, the protection of koala habitat.
Protects koala colonies and habitat, but
in a fragmented or long-term capacity
Enables bushfire recovery
and future fire protection
Ensures large areas of connected
koala habitat without burdening
private landowners, with
potential economic gains
Georges River Koala National Park

This proposal would see 4 000 ha of koala habitat in South-West Sydney converted to national park and protective infrastructure installed along key boundaries.

The koala habitat closest to the Sydney CBD, it is particularly vulnerable to urban development. It is also the most accessible destination for wild koala-spotting. With the Western-Sydney airport opening in 2026, tourism to the Georges River Koala National Park could be an “economic jackpot” for a region of relatively low socio-economic status. The koalas here are particularly important — the only population in NSW that is chlamydia-free.

Note: Two months after the inquiry report was published, NSW Minister for Energy and Environment, Matt Kean, approved the establishment of the Georges River National Park. (However, it will be phased over 10 years and protect 1 885 ha, not 4 000.)

The Great Koala National Park

The Coffs Harbour hinterland is koala country — over 40% of all koala hubs in NSW are located here. The proposed Great Koala National Park would protect 175 000 ha of state forest, creating an expansive and connected area designed for tourism and koala conservation.

The Park would encompass 315 000 ha in total (converted state forests combined with 140 000 ha of existing national park) and include numerous walking trails, a 215km hiking track, a 65km horseback trail, and an extensive mountain bike network.

The proposal has been co-created and endorsed by the local Gumbaynggiru people. Due to the area’s size and environmental diversity, the Great Koala National Park gives NSW koalas their best hope at climate adaptation.

What concerns would the creation of the Great Koala National Park come up against?

Koala Economics

Timber production groups raised concerns about the economic impact of the Great Koala National Park in their submissions. They cited two reports as evidence:

  1. A Forest & Wood Products Australia (FWPA) report on the cost of converting all state forests in the region to national parks.
  2. A report for the Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) on the cost of cancelling all Wood Supply Agreements (WSAs) in the region.

Both economic models here are unsuitable for the Great Koala National Park proposal and inflate the true cost of establishing the Park.

The area they assess — the North-East Regional Fire Agreement area — is over five times larger than the proposed Park. They also assume that all logging across this area stops, ignoring jobs and revenue from continued plantation logging. Further, the FWPA report assumes no increase in tourism, visitor spending, or additional job creation in converting the state forest to national park.

In February 2021, the University of Newcastle and Hunter Research Foundation Center released a report on the potential economic impact of the Park. They found the loss of timber jobs and revenue in the medium-term would be over-compensated by new opportunities in park management and eco-tourism. The table below compares jobs and revenue in the Mid-North Coast over 10 years:

 Logging (AFPA)LoggingGreat Koala NP


Value added


per annum


at 7% DR


at 7% DR

Direct jobs

In the region





When a koala population is under threat from mining or a development, translocation is often proposed by industry. This involves moving koalas to alternative habitat that is already under protection, instead of protecting their existing habitat.

This method of management has been proposed to deal with the koala population in the Gunnedah region, who live at the newly approved Shenhua Watermark mine site.

Although there are some success stories, multiple submissions highlighted past translocation attempts that had “tragically failed”. Other experts expressed disapproval of the strategy, for its high risk and unproven results.

When koalas are translocated, they spend time on the ground acclimatising to their new environment. This puts them at higher risk of predation. Further, koalas feed on only a few species of eucalypt and their gut is sensitive to subtle changes in tree and soil types. Even within NSW, the feed trees of one koala population may be unsuitable for another. Introduced koalas can also expose new disease to a local population, and vice-versa.

Some translocation destinations are of seemingly high-quality habitat but have no local koala population. In these cases, there are reasons why the habitat is devoid of koalas; be it food quality, feral animals, past bushfires, disease or other threats.

Note: Even where offsetting koalas is used as alternative to translocating koalas, the current regulations (cl 6.2(2)(d) of the Biodiversity Conservation Regulation 2017) are such that mining companies can agree to rehabilitate a mine site on closure as an offset, which might be 30 or 40 years too late for the existing koala population.

Pest Control

Since the inquiry report was released, NSW Farmers Association raised concerns about increased national parks creating a breeding ground for pests.

Pests can become rampant in national park, timber and forestry areas. Currently there are regional pest management strategies and threat abatement plans which operate across our national parks, which would be applied to the Great Koala National Park. The NSW Government has shown commitment to undertake extensive culls of pests post-bushfires, though further efforts may be required.

Fire Management

Timber NSW’s submission argued that wildfires pose the greatest risk to koalas, and argued that since so much national park had been burned in recent years, koalas may be better protected in state forests, where forest thinning and timber harvesting is allowed.

Although Timber NSW included historical data on the area of national park burned, they did not provide comparative numbers for state forests. In the 2019-20 bushfires, 42% of state forest in NSW was affected by the fires compared to 37% of national park.

Nevertheless, converting forest to national park alone is not enough. A rapid move toward preventive and proactive fire management that emphasises cultural burning is essential for koala habitat conservation. Climate change mitigation is also crucial e.g. the 2019-20 bushfires. If resourced sufficiently, parks managed by the National Parks & Wildlife Service can remain healthy, biodiverse, and fire-resilient.


This website is a collaboration between Brody Smith and Alannah Milton. Together, they storyboarded, researched and wrote the copy.

Brody designed and built the website. He is an information designer at the Lowy Institute. Alannah created the illustrations. She is a law graduate at Colin Biggers and Paisley.

Special thanks to
Dailan Pugh OAM
President of the North
East Forest Alliance
Amelia Thorpe
Associate Professor
at UNSW Law
Christopher McElwain
PhD Candidate and Teaching
Fellow at UNSW Law

Thoughtful feedback appreciated from Bailey Chappel, Erin Bassett, and Joseph Rowlands.
Design inspired by The Race Gap.