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Australia branded hypocrites over 'disgraceful' detail at ASEAN summit

Social media has erupted with the government called out for 'parading' the poorly treated koala before the foreign press at the ASEAN summit.

A media stunt involving a koala ahead of a speech by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on day two of the ASEAN summit in Melbourne has been a hit with foreign press photographers. But in Australia it’s sparked a sharp rebuke on social media with the government labelled “hypocrites”.

Overnight, a tweet by Australian Financial Review political editor Phillip Coorey accused successive governments of allowing “wholesale destruction of habitat by developers” and then “parading these poor creatures before the foreign press at ASEAN as if we care about them”. It received 704 likes and over 100 comments, with several referring to allegations this week that hundreds of marsupials were being killed and injured during timber plantation harvesting on Kangaroo Island.

For commentators focused on wildlife issues, the criticism was not a surprise. In November, after Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek posed gleefully with a cuddly marsupial to promote a new wildlife hospital, several high-profile wildlife experts criticised the government’s approach to koala protection. “Rampant deforestation continuing in koala habitat. Oh but a cute photo opportunity,” one quipped.

Journalists and photographers surround a koala on a gum branch at the media centre during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne. Source: AAP
Journalists photograph a koala on display at the media centre during the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne. Source: AAP

A saltwater crocodile was also on display during the ASEAN summit at Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre, although its presence appeared to draw little critical reaction. But when it came to the koalas, the stunt was branded a "disgrace" and "obscene" by animal lovers on the X social media platform.

Yahoo News reached out to the offices of Albanese and Plibersek to try and determine where the koalas were sourced from but they did not respond. Zoos Victoria confirmed it does not supply animals in its care for appearances such as these.

Are Australia's koalas still in trouble?

Over 60,000 koalas were likely impacted by the 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires, leading to the Morrison Government uplisting the species from vulnerable to extinction, to endangered across NSW, Queensland and ACT in 2022.

But because land in these states was approved for development before koalas received special Commonwealth protections, they have been allowed to go ahead, and Plibersek’s office is unable to intervene.

In the Gold Coast town of Coomera, where koalas have recently lost habitat to make way for a new Westfield, McDonald’s, KFC, Taco Bell, Toyota dealership, the state government has prepared plans to destroy more forest to build a new hospital.

In NSW, developer LendLease is controversially building a new housing estate adjacent to the last remaining population of koalas that is free of chlamydia — a disease that causes infertility and death.

While concerns about NSW and Queensland koala populations have been boiling away for at least a decade, news about the deaths on Kangaroo Island renewed national concerns about the species. The community was so incensed the island’s mayor, who appeared on the Channel 7 expose, told Yahoo News he received death threats over his comments on the program.

Early warning to protect koalas during harvesting

There are also widespread concerns about koalas in Victoria, where injuries caused by harvesters have been historically documented in that state’s timber plantations. One ecologist has urged the state government to consider translocating the animals elsewhere to protect them. There are more than 40,000 koalas living in plantations in Victoria, all facing loss of their plantation homes.

A saltwater crocodile being touched by journalists at the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre.
A saltwater crocodile was on display during a press conference at the 2024 ASEAN-Australia Special Summit at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre. Source: AAP

Concerns about koalas in plantations are not new. An ecologist working for WWF-Australia, Dr Kita Ashman, warned in 2019 a plan needed to be formulated to protect koalas living in them. "We knew they were breeding up interest in plantations years ago, and there was never any proactive view towards what's going to happen when we harvest,” she told Yahoo on Tuesday.

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