Australia set to be 'embarrassed' overseas as 'confronting' new documentary released

The documentarians started off making a little film. But as they continued, what they discovered got worse and worse.

A man walking through a recently logged forest in NSW.
Native forest logging was identified as a threat to koalas in Australia. Source: The Koalas

“Embarrassed” is how a pair of Aussie filmmakers say they’ll feel once their confronting new wildlife documentary is screened internationally. But after four years chronicling the sad demise of the country’s most iconic native mammal for their feature The Koala, it’s an outcome producer Georgia Wallace-Crabb and director Gregory Miller think is unavoidable.

“As Australians it would be embarrassing to turn up overseas at a festival and to be asked about how bad the situation is,” Miller told Yahoo News. "Because most people see Australia as a wealthy, organised, safe, secure, modern country.”

The pair began filming The Koala after hearing a population of the cuddly marsupials would be displaced by a new multimillion dollar housing development planned for Sydney’s south-west.

“I was driving my car when I heard that, and it just made me so angry that the government had decided that little colony didn’t matter, because there’d always be another one somewhere else,” Miller said.

The film started as an investigation into that small population of koalas, but quickly expanded into an expose on the demise of koalas across the country as federal and state governments continue to preference native forest logging and housing over nature.

“From then on it was a descent into: Oh my god this is worse than we thought,” Miller said.

Related: Can koalas survive the NSW housing crisis?

Recently cleared land. There are no houses yet but spaces have been cleared for them. And there are empty roads.
As koala habitat was destroyed, neighbours began seeing them in their backyards for the first time. Source: The Koala

Across the country, they found “little battles” which only appeared in local newspapers that weren’t big enough to garner national attention. Again and again they saw community members trying in vain to stop politicians and industry from destroying koala habitat.

All of these feuds across Australia were not directly connected, but as they edited each “patch” of the story together into a single “quilt”, the severity of pressures facing koalas finally became clear.

“In terms of the extinction crisis, it’s all connected. People often look at local flash-points about road crossings or the cutting down of one patch of habitat, but there’s a bigger issue underlying it all — land management,” Wallace-Crabb said.

“If we want native animals then we need to have native habitat. If we choose to commodify all of our landscape to the nth degree then we won’t just lose koalas, there are also these smaller species going extinct on our watch — frogs and gliders and all kinds of things.”

In the towns they visited along the east coast, the filmmakers became aware that many locals had only recently become aware of the wildlife living around them.

“Local knowledge of koalas was growing as people started to become aware they had koalas in their backyards, their streets, places they hadn’t seen them before. And it was a pattern we saw across the country,” Miller said.

“They’d often just be reported as curiosities. People would be wondering why they’d never noticed them before.

“And it was only later that it became clear why this was happening. It was because they were being squeezed more and more out of the areas they’d traditionally been sitting in. Their habitat was disappearing under our eyes.”

Related: Can koalas survive the Queensland housing crisis?

A wildlife rescuer staring at a koala joey.
As koalas continue to lose their existing habitat, they may eventually survive by living in semi-urban areas. Source: The Koalas

Wallace-Crabb believes many Australians think of their country’s wildlife as almost “vermin”, as the animals that have lived their for millennia often stand in the way of turning land into a fast and easy profit.

“You’ve heard people like [former NSW Deputy Premier] John Barilaro calling koalas 'tree rats',” she said. “And before that in the 20th century koalas were actively hunted. So that’s often the mindset.”

During the 2019/2020 Black Summer bushfires, NSW lost a third of its koalas and its population, along with those in Queensland and the ACT, were later declared endangered. But despite their listing, their habitat continues to be reclassified as land that should be bulldozed for housing developments and its expected they'll be extinct in NSW by 2050.

As their habitat shrinks or becomes untenable due to the risk of bushfire, Wallace-Crabb believes the species may only survive cohabitating in towns with people.

“If they actually have clever planning designs, with lovely green corridors, then people would have their lives enhanced with the presence of native animals and that would be amazing,” she said.

The Koala will premiere at the Castlemaine Documentary Festival and then show in cities and regional centres around Australia. You can find session dates and times here.

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