At first glance, an image showing gleaming new McDonald's, KFC and Taco Bell franchises along a busy road could be anywhere in the world. But if you look closely you'll see there are remnants of thick Australian bushland in the background.
Until 2017, habitat trees grew on the Gold Coast site where three US-owned fast food outlets now stand. The wider area had a thriving koala population, but it's now a patchwork of development designed to meet the needs of the thousands of people who call the suburb of East Coomera home.
With a KFC already located across the road inside the Westfield shopping centre and two McDonald’s restaurants within 2km of the store, the new openings will offer residents the ultimate convenience. The stores will also provide local jobs and many have celebrated their arrival.
But some conservationists say it's "questionable" as to whether the habitat needed to be cleared, paving the way for fast-food outlets to open on the site. They wonder if community and wildlife needs are in balance, noting koalas are disappearing from the landscape. With the species now listed as endangered, Yahoo News Australia has worked to answer how this situation eventuated.
Are KFC, McDonald’s and Taco Bell responsible for displacing koalas?
McDonalds, KFC and Taco Bell did not clear the Foxwell Road, East Coomera site themselves and they occupy just a small amount of a wide area slated for a massive suburban transformation.
However some environmentalists argue high-profile companies still have a moral obligation to consider what was on the land before they invest in it. “We don’t want to take away from what the community requires, but we need to think more carefully about how we develop,” Nicole Taylor from Coomera Conservation Group said.
"There's been the development of a hospital in the area, the TAFE, there's lots of schools that have gone in the area as well. So it's just a natural progression to have fast food there. Whether its necessary or not remains questionable," she added.
Yahoo asked the retailers if they had concerns about opening there because it had recently been koala habitat, but none of them responded to direct questions.
Collins Group, which opened the KFC and Taco Bell franchises on the busy Foxwell Road site this month, rents the buildings its stores occupy and directed the questions to the developer and council.
McDonald’s, which opened its store in December 2022, said the company follows "a rigorous due-diligence process when assessing the suitability of a site". It added the site was zoned for commercial use and decisions "are guided by council as the local authority".
What happened to koalas living across Coomera?
In 2006, around 500 koalas were living around East Coomera and neighbouring Pimpama.
Of the 180 koalas relocated from the site between 2009 and 2014, over 40 per cent died – while approximately 50 per cent left in East Coomera succumbed to disease, predation and road trauma. A number of these deaths can be associated with old age.
Who cleared the koala habitat in Coomera?
The site where McDonald’s, KFC and Taco Bell sit was cleared in 2017 in line with zoning laws approved by the City of Gold Coast in 2003.
The wider development, called Town Centre South is being managed by a joint venture between Keylin and Kinstone, but it did not bulldoze the portion of the site where the fast-food companies were built.
Land on the other side of Foxwell Road was bulldozed by Scentre Group, the parent company of Westfield, to make way for its Coomera shopping mall. In 2021, Yahoo reported on a koala that returned to the site but instead of trees it found a carpark.
Satellite images show that when Scentre Group cleared its site, the state government body Queensland Investment Corporation (QIC) made its move and did the same, paving the way for development.
Is all of the site being bulldozed?
Not all of East Coomera's forests have been removed. QIC issued a statement confirming it had cleared a portion of 64 Foxwell Road while retaining some land for environmental purposes.
Keylin and Kinstone is retaining more than half of the wider 47.7-hectare Foxwell Coomera site for conservation. “A further 1.6 hectares of bushland will also be rehabilitated and protected along Oakey Creek on the site’s southern boundary,” project director Jason Murdoch said.
Koalas set to lose more Gold Coast habitat
Ms Taylor, from Coomera Conservation Group, says koalas are experiencing a slow, piecemeal loss of habitat due to development approvals which were made decades ago before koalas were listed as endangered in 2022 following catastrophic losses during the Black Summer bushfires in 2019/2020. “The whole area has been death by paper cuts — one development following after another,” she said.
Corporations have indicated they take their lead from government when deciding to build in a new location. With wildlife continuing to lose habitat across Australia, the country's leaders may soon have to decide whether to preference urbanisation or stop localised extinction of native species.
Nowhere is the clash between wildlife and development more evident than on the Gold Coast where outside of the capitals it has seen the largest growth in population in the country.
Hospitals, retail outlets and new housing are all planned. The state and federal governments along with City of Gold Coast are also planning a major new highway called the Coomera Connector which will link the region with Brisbane. It will cut through untouched koala habitat, displacing more animals.
With koalas facing extinction in Queensland, Yahoo News Australia asked QIC to look back on its decision to clear the land and whether it had learned anything. It did not respond directly to the question.
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