THE Great Koala National Park, proposal floated by the Bellingen Environment Centre, backed by The Greens and endorsed by Labor would seek to preserve Australia's iconic marsupials.

Make no mistake, koalas could in 30 years be on the brink of extinction in the wild if preservation measures are not taken, all available research indicates. 

Koala numbers were found to have plummeted by a third in the 20 years between 1990 and 2010 over the course of three generations.

Given the Mid North Coast is home to an estimated 25% of the state's population the GKNP proposes to add 175,000 hectares of state forests to the existing protected areas to form a 315,000ha reserve in the Coffs Harbour hinterland.

The joeys are among 61 koalas at the park.
The Great Koala National Park proposal was first floated as an election issue four years ago.

This week The Advocate surveyed candidates contesting the State Election on their opinions.

The video we filmed was picked up by Australian Associated Press, which uses its fact checker software to research claims made by political candidates.

At this point, Tony Judge from Labor, Jonathan Cassell from the Greens and independents Ann Leonard and Sally Townley publicly support the koala park, while The Nationals Gurmesh Singh and the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate Stuart Davidson oppose it, with some argument raised over the impact the park would have on forestry and logging on the North Coast.

Tony Judge Labor candidate. Labor to match boat ramp funding. 07 FEB 2018
Country Labor candidate for Coffs Harbour Tony Judge. TREVOR VEALE

In this local AAP FactCheck Investigation: The question was raised 'Could inaction lead to koalas becoming extinct mid-century or are koala populations rising?

The software assessed two opposing statements made by NSW Labor candidate Tony Judge and Nationals candidate Gurmesh Singh.

Mr Judge said: "If we don't do something by 2050 koalas are going to be extinct."

Mr Singh said: "I think the scientific evidence shows otherwise, that the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past."

funding announced for Woolgoolga multi-purpose centre, Gurmesh Singh, . 13 FEB 2018
Nationals candidate for Coffs Harbour Gurmesh Singh. Trevor Veale

Based on available research here's what the AAP FactCheck Investigation found:

The Analysis

Coff Harbour candidates Tony Judge (Labor) and Gurmesh Singh (Nationals) are divided over NSW koala populations and the need for a Great Koala National Park in their electorate. [1]

AAP FactCheck examined Mr Judge's claim that "if we don't do something by 2050 koalas are going to be extinct".

AAP FactCheck also examined Mr Singh's opposing claim that "scientific evidence" shows the number of koalas "are far higher than they have been in the past".

Concerned by the impact of logging and the forestry industry, regional environment groups and the NSW National Parks Association (NPA) engaged ecologist David Scott to map and report on koala populations along NSW's mid north coast.

Scott's 2013 report led to a proposal titled:

"A blueprint for a comprehensive reserve system for koalas on the North Coast of NSW". It was adopted in December 2014 by then NSW Labor leader Luke Foley who committed $150 million for a Great Koala National Park (GKNP) ahead of the 2015 NSW election. This GKNP proposal has since been adopted by the NSW Greens Party. [2]

The GKNP would consist of 315,000 hectares in the Coffs Harbour hinterland and would be Australia's first large national park dedicated to protecting koalas. [3]

The park would protect an estimated 4550 koalas or between 20-30 per cent of all koalas in NSW.

The GKNP became a 2019 NSW election issue because of the impact it would have on the Coffs Harbour electorate.

Candidates are divided on koala populations, the negative impacts a GKNP could have on the forestry industry and any positive impacts from tourism. [1]

Tony Judge's 2050 koala extinction claim is based on a 2018 report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Nature Conservation Council (NCC), which estimated koalas were on track to face extinction in NSW by 2050.

The 2050 estimate was reached using advice from the federal Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) in 2012, which listed koalas in NSW, Queensland and ACT as "vulnerable to extinction" based on two population estimates.

There's still koalas to see in Noosa. Sylvia Wallis
In a worst case scenario koala numbers could dwindle drastically over the next 30 years all available research suggests. Sylvia Wallis

"The TSSC estimated a 33 per cent koala population decline from 31,400 to 21,000 across the two decades from 1990-2010. The worst-case extinction year would be 2050 based on linear extrapolation from these two points," the WWF/NCC report said. [4]

NCC CEO Kate Smolski said "koala numbers across the state, including on the north coast, have plummeted up to 50 per cent since 1990".

"There are now possibly as few as 15,000 left in the wild. On current trends and without urgent action koalas are on track to become extinct by mid-century." [5]

Richard Kingsford, a professor of environmental science at the University of NSW, said while the WWF/NCC methodology was sound, the report's 2050 prediction was "blunt".

"It's clearly identified that clearing has gone on - that seems incontrovertible - I think the more difficult leap is what does that mean in terms of potential extinction of species." [6]

A spokesman for NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton discounted the WWF/NCC report.

"The NSW government's koala strategy - the biggest commitment by any state government to secure koalas in the wild - will provide more natural habitat for koalas, tackle diseases, improve research and fix roadkill hotspots. The NSW government has committed $45 million for this strategy. The WWF and NCC are simply playing politics and scaremongering." [7]

Dreamworld’s koala breeding program — the good work is being done just near where habitat is being lost due to residential development. Photo by Richard Gosling
Tony Judge's statements were found to be mostly true.

Based on the evidence AAP FactCheck found Mr Judge's claim to be mostly true, as Prof Kingsford and Ms Upton discounted some or all of the WCC/NCC report on which Mr Judge based his claim.

There was little evidence to support Mr Singh's claim "the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past".

It's "practically impossible" to get an accurate count of koalas, according to the Australia Koala Foundation.

Instead modelling is used to estimate koala numbers by examining koala habitats and the spread and density of koalas across habitats. [8]

There is however consensus that koala numbers are declining.

According to a senate report the estimated koala population before European settlement was as high as 10 million. [9]

The Journal of Conservation Biogeography estimated an average decline of 24 per cent over the past three generations. [10]

Martin Taylor, WWF. Save the Koalas meeting . February 2019
WWF is actively campaigning to save koalas in the wild. Bev Lacey

The senate report concluded koalas had "undergone marked decline over three generations". [9]

The Australian Government Department of Environment's Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) told a 2011 senate inquiry there were approximately 300,000 koalas in 2010, down from 430,000 in 1990. [9]

In South Australia and Victoria koala populations are "flourishing" and are not listed as vulnerable or threatened, although numbers are still declining according to the Journal of Conservation Biogeography. The decline in Queensland, NSW and the ACT is considered severe. [9 pages 17 & 23] [10]

Ecological historian and forester Vic Jurskis told ABC radio in 2017 that the koala decline was not a crisis as populations had fallen from unsustainably high levels.

"A stable (koala) population is the right size. If koalas are increasing there's something wrong and inevitably they're going to decline," Mr Jurskis said. [11]

The Great Koala National Park proposal map.
The Great Koala National Park proposal map. National Parks Association

There was only one study, commissioned by the NSW Department of Primary Industries in 2018, which found any evidence of an increase. It found there were 10 times the number of koalas previously thought to be in NSW's north-east forests. [12]

AAP FactCheck concludes Mr Singh's claim "the numbers (of koalas) are far higher than they have been in the past" is mostly false as there was only one 2018 NSW government study which found any increase.

The Verdict

Mr Judge's claim is mostly true - mostly accurate, but there is a minor error or problem.

Mr Singh's claim is mostly false - mostly false with one minor element of truth.

The References

1: 'Candidates respond to Great Koala National Park plans'. The Coffs Harbour Advocate. March 19, 2019:

2: 'The Great Koala National Park proposal: 26 years in the making - Part 1'. Coffs Coast Outlook. June 5, 2018:

3: 'The Great Koala National Park plan'. National Parks Association of NSW (NPA) conservation organisation:

4: WWF Australia. September, 2018: koala extinction risk nsw - WWF-Australia

5: 'Great Koala National Park will 'destroy' the North Coast'. By Sam Flanagan. Coffs Coast Advocate. March 16, 2019:

6: 'Koalas face extinction in New South Wales by 2050 due to land clearing, scientist warns'. By Patrick Wood. ABC. September 10, 2018:

7: 'Government ridicules WWF claim koalas extinct by 2050'. By John Ellicott. The Land. September 7, 2018:

8: 'How AKF and Government got their Numbers'. Australian Koala Foundation:

9: 'Environment and Communications References Committee senate inquiry: The koala--saving our national icon'. 2011:

10: 'Use of expert knowledge to elicit population trends for the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)', by C. Adams-Hosking et al. Diversity and Distributions - A Journal of Conservation Biogeography. 2016. Supplied to AAP FactCheck

11: 'Ecological historian argues koala population decline is not a crisis'. ABC Radio. RN Breakfast. November 27, 2017:

12: 'Acoustics provide new insights on koalas in hinterland forests'. NSW Department of Primary Industries. July 30, 2018:

Australian Associated Press