Housing crisis versus koalas: Which is more important?

Approval of a new housing project is causing alarm among conservationists.

Long before Aussies began to experience a housing crisis, we were warned of a koala crisis.

More than ever, humans and koalas are competing for the same land, and that's got wildlife rescuers worried.

Amid growing concern for the survival of the species, rescue group WIRES has shared a series of disturbing images with Yahoo that highlight the impact we're already having on them. But could the situation be about to get much worse?

A koala and her baby in a cage.
October 2022 - a mother and baby were struck by a car on Appin Rd, Rosemeadow. The baby did not survive. Source: WIRES

How did we get here?

Just months after the Minns government took power, a severe housing shortage emerged — rents and property prices are soaring and there has been pressure on the government to help.

Its first major solution has been to fast-track a new housing project in the southwest Sydney suburb of Appin. While the government claims this will provide "much-needed" homes, critics say it will drive koalas closer to extinction.

Two images of cars driving by a dead koala in the middle of the road.
May 2023 - Motorists drive past the destroyed body of a koala on Appin Road. Source: WIRES

Why do critics think the Appin development is a bad idea?

The Minns government has rezoned a parcel of land in Appin so a new 13,000-dwelling development can progress to its next assessment stage. While housing is desperately needed in NSW, this project will be built on the outskirts of the state’s last remaining disease-free colony of koalas.

Elsewhere in the country, chlamydia is impacting breeding and localised extinctions have occurred, but the southwest Sydney population is actually growing. What’s concerning critics about the Appin plan is that it fills undeveloped land with houses rather than trees and this will stop the species from moving outwards and recovering.

The region’s human population has already grown significantly and koala advocates want this expansion to slow. Many local rescuers are already burned out, and infrastructure designed to keep the marsupials off roads had been allowed to fall apart.

An independent report in March warned the number of koala fatalities from vehicle strikes around Sydney’s basin has doubled and in some places quintupled.

The Appin development will be created less than 15 minutes drive from LendLease’s controversial FigTree Hill project. In March, Australian Ethical superannuation offloaded its $11 million stake in the company because of concerns about the project's impact on koalas.

A baby koala wrapped in towels.
June 2023 - A juvenile male was rescued from a Appin Road, Gilead, before he was hit. Source: WIRES

Fear new developments pushing koalas towards extinction

Appin is being managed by Walker Corp. Its plan was fast-tracked by the Minns government in July despite its own environment minister Penny Sharpe expressing concern the region's existing conservation plan does not “strike the right balance” between development and koala protection.

Responding to questions about the Appin development progressing despite her stated issues with the conservation plan, Minister Sharpe told Yahoo it “is a complex plan that we need to get right”.

“I am working through the issues to ensure that we protect koalas and the rest of the stated conservation outcomes of the plan,” she said.

Developer believes housing plan will protect koalas

Walker Corp has experience handling the fall-out from controversial developments — the company is currently proposing to build on endangered bird habitat in Queensland. With the Appin development, it believes it can get the balance between housing and conservation right and few trees will be removed.

Walker Corp argues its development will actually benefit wildlife because it meets the requirements of the NSW and the chief scientist, and it has collaborated with the NSW government on “specific measures… to enhance and grow” the area’s koala population.

"The Appin rezoning is not just about solving the housing crisis or delivering vital infrastructure to a region that desperately needs it," a spokesperson said. “The most exciting part is this rezoning delivers the protection of over 500 hectares of conservation land, which is most importantly koala corridor and feed land."

Hope of koalas recovering dwindles

This week, Jeff Angel from non-profit Total Environment Centre expressed concern about the direction of the Minns government's housing plan. He accused it of appearing “unable to implement its own policy to curb urban sprawl”, and warned new development is pushing koalas towards extinction.

“You’ve got to wonder how serious they are about protecting koalas,” he later told Yahoo. “I think they need to take a serious look again at what's going on in urban planning.”

The Sydney Basin Koala Network is particularly concerned about the Appin development. Spokesperson Stephanie Carrick believes adding 13,000 new homes to a town that currently supports just 3000 people will be harmful to the region’s koalas. She has used independent koala mapping to illustrate the development’s proximity to an existing population of the marsupials.

Two maps showing the development as well as koala sightings.
Sydney Basin Koala Network has created a map illustrating where development will occur in relation to koala sightings. Source: BioLink/Walker Corp

While Ms Carrick accepts that more homes are needed, she questions why the government is expanding outwards rather than upwards. “There is a koala crisis. There are recovery plans for the animal at the state and federal level. But in order for an endangered animal to recover, it needs to be able to grow,” she said.

Are housing developments the only concern?

The development plan is not the only decision causing angst among conservationists. Labor's promised Great Koala National Park is supposed to see 176,000 hectares of state forest assessed for inclusion into the protection zone, but critics are concerned thousands of hectares could be logged before it's approved.

The government is yet to set a date for its creation — “The NSW Labor Government will create an iconic Great Koala National Park as soon as we can,” Minister Sharpe told Yahoo in June.

While there has been heavy focus on koalas in NSW this week, further north in Queensland there are concerns not enough is being done to protect the species. Our next story on koalas versus the housing crisis will look at the situation in that state.

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