We know how to save NSW’s koalas from extinction – but the government must commit



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Dr Christine Hosking, The University of Queensland

On Tuesday, a year-long New South Wales parliamentary inquiry revealed the state’s koalas are on track for extinction in the wild by 2050, without urgent government intervention.

Habitat destruction and fragmentation for agriculture, urban development, mining and forestry has been the number one koala killer since European occupation of Australia. This is compounded by the unabated impacts of climate change, which leads to more extreme droughts, heatwaves and bushfires.




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Koala populations in NSW were already declining before the 2019-2020 bushfires. The report doesn’t mince words, saying “huge swathes of koala habitat burned and at least 5,000 koalas perished”.

The report, ambitiously, makes 42 recommendations, and all have merit. The fate of NSW koalas now relies on a huge commitment from the Berejiklian government to act on them. But past failures by a federal government inquiry into koalas suggest there’s little cause for optimism.

First, let’s look at the report’s key recommendations and how they might ensure the species’ survival in NSW.

Leadership needed at the local level

Real, on-ground koala conservation actions take place at the local level. “Local” is where councils give development approvals, sometimes to clear koala habitat. And it’s where communities and volunteers work on the front line to save and protect the species.

Recommendation 10 in the report addresses this, suggesting the NSW government provide additional funding and support to community groups so they can plant trees and regenerate bushland along koala and wildlife corridors.




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Another two recommendations build on this: encouraging increased funding from the NSW government to local councils to support local conservation initiatives, and suggesting increased resources to support councils to conduct mapping.

Mapping, such as where koalas have been recorded and their habitat, is a critical component for local councils to develop comprehensive koala management plans.

Stop offsetting koala habitat

One recommendation suggests a review of the “biodiversity offsets scheme”, where generally developers must compensate for habitat loss by improving or establishing it elsewhere. It is embedded in the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, and other state and territory governments commonly use offsets in various conservation policies.




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But the report recommends prohibiting offsets for high quality koala habitat. Prohibiting offsets is important because when a vital part of koala habitat is cleared, it can no longer support the local koalas. Replacing this habitat somewhere else won’t save that particular population.

Build the Great Koala National Park

It’s of paramount importance to increase the connected, healthy koala habitat in NSW, particularly after the bushfires.

One tool to achieve this is laid out in recommendation 41: to investigate establishing the Great Koala National Park. Spearheaded by the National Parks Association of NSW, this national park would see 175,000 hectares of publicly owned state forests added to existing protected areas.

It total, it would form a 315,000 hectare reserve in the Coffs Harbour hinterland dedicated to protecting koalas – an Australian first.




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It would be a great day if such a park was established and replicated throughout the NSW and Queensland hinterlands. Research shows that in those regions, the future climate will remain suitable for koalas, and urbanisation, agriculture and mining are not currently present in these parks.

The Great Koala National Park.

But it’s worth noting Australia’s national parks are under increasing pressure from “adventure tourism”. Human recreation activities can fragment habitat and disturb wildlife, for example by constructing tracks and access roads through natural areas.

Humans must not be allowed to compromise dedicated koala conservation areas. Intrusive recreational activity is detrimental to the species, and can also reduce the chance quiet park visitors might spy a koala sitting high in a tree, sleepily munching on gum leaves.

This rule should apply both to existing national parks, and a new Great Koala National Park.

Failures of past inquiries

The tragic fate predicted for koalas in NSW depends on the state government’s willingness to act on the recommendations. Developing wordy, well-intentioned documents is simply not enough.

We need look no further than Australia’s key environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, to realise this.

Habitat destruction is an existential threat to koalas.
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After a 2012 Senate inquiry into the health and status of koalas, the species was officially listed as “vulnerable” under the EPBC Act. But since then, tree clearing and declines in koala numbers have continued at a furious pace across Queensland and NSW.

One of the shortcomings of the federal listing for the koala is in its Referral Guidelines, which recommends “proponents consider these guidelines when proposing actions within the modelled distribution of the koala”. In other words, informing the government about clearing koala habitat is only voluntary. And that’s not good enough.




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The failure of the 2012 inquiry and the EPBC Act to protect koalas should serve as a wake-up call to the NSW government. It must start implementing the recommendations of the current inquiry without delay to ensure Australia’s internationally celebrated species doesn’t die out.

Koala conservation must take priority over land clearing, regardless of the demand for that land. That principle might seem simple, but so far it’s proved agonisingly difficult.The Conversation

Dr Christine Hosking, Conservation Planner/Researcher, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We developed tools to study cancer in Tasmanian devils. They could help fight disease in humans



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Andrew S. Flies, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, University of Tasmania

Emerging infectious diseases, including COVID-19, usually come from non-human animals. However our understanding of most animals’ immune systems is sadly lacking as there’s a shortfall in research tools for species other than humans and mice.

Our research published today in Science Advances details cutting edge immunology tools we developed to understand cancer in Tasmanian devils. Importantly, these tools can be rapidly modified for use on any animal species.

Our work will help future wildlife conservation efforts, as well as preparedness against potential new diseases in humans.

The fall of the devil

Tasmanian devil populations have undergone a steep decline in recent decades, due to a lethal cancer called devil facial tumour disease (DFTD) first detected in 1996.

A decade after it was discovered, genetic analysis revealed DFT cells are transmitted between devils, usually when they bite each other during mating. A second type of transmissible devil facial tumour (DFT2) was detected in 2014, suggesting devils are prone to developing contagious cancers.

A Tasmanian devil with devil facial tumour disease.
Save the Tasmanian Devil Program

In 2016, researchers reported some wild devils had natural immune responses against DFT1 cancers. A year later an experimental vaccine for the original devil facial tumour (DFT1) was tested in devils artificially inoculated with cancer cells.

While the vaccine didn’t protect them, in some cases subsequent treatments were able to induce tumour regression.

But despite the promising results, and other good news from the field, DFT1 continues to suppress devil populations across most of Tasmania. And DFT2 poses an additional threat.




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Following a blueprint requires tools

In humans, there has been incredible progress in treatments targeting protein that regulate our immune system. These treatments work by stimulating the immune system to kill cancer cells.

Our team’s analyses of devil DNA showed these immune genes are also present in devils, meaning we may be able to develop similar treatments to stimulate the devil immune system.

But studying the DNA blueprint for devils takes us only so far. To build a strong house, you need to understand the blueprint and have the right tools. Proteins are the building blocks of life. So to build effective treatments and vaccines for devils we have to study the proteins in their immune system.

Until recently, there were few research tools available for this. And this problem was all too familiar to researchers studying immunology and disease in species other than humans, mice or rats.

Into the FAST lane

You could build a house with just a saw, hammer and nails – but a better and faster build requires a larger, more versatile toolbox.

In our new research, we’ve added more than a dozen tools to the toolbox for understanding tumours in Tasmanian devils. These are Fluorescent Adaptable Simple Theranostic proteins – or simply, FAST proteins.

The term “theranostic” merges therapeutic and diagnostic. FAST proteins can be used as a therapeutic drug to treat a disease, or as a diagnostic tool to determine its cause and better understand it.

A key feature of FAST proteins is they can be tagged with a fluorescent protein marker, and can be released from the cells that we engineered in the lab to make them.

This way, we can collect and observe how the proteins attach and interact with other proteins without needing to add a tag later in the process.

To understand this, imagine trying to use a tiny key in a tiny lock in the dark. It would be difficult, but much easier if both were tagged with a coloured light. In the context of the immune system, it’s easier to understand what we need to turn on or off if we can see where the proteins are.

By mapping how proteins within the devil’s immune system interact, we can find better ways to stimulate the immune system.

An overview of the FAST protein system. Fluorescent proteins and immune system proteins from different species can be rapidly swapped to make new FAST proteins.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

The FAST system is also adaptable, meaning new targets can be cut-and-pasted into the system as they’re identified, like changing the bits on a drill. Therefore, it’s useful for studying the immune systems of other animals too, including humans.

Also, the system is simple enough that most people with basic cell culture and molecular biology experience could use it.




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Needle in a haystack

Cancer cells in humans and animals can travel via the bloodstream to spread, or “metastasise”, throughout the body. Identifying single tumour cells in blood can shed light on how cancer invades devils’ organs and kills them.

Using FAST tools, we discovered CD200 – a protein that inhibits anti-cancer responses in humans – is highly expressed in devils. With FAST tools, we were able to mix DFT2 cancer cells into devil blood and pick them out, despite there being about one cancer cell for every 1,000 blood cells.

CD200 is a powerful “off switch” for the immune system, so identifying this off switch allows us it can help us produce a vaccine that disables the switch.

A devil facial tumour 2 (DFT2) cell, with the cell nucleus shown in blue.
Andrew S. Flies/WildImmunity

By rapidly sifting out the best ways to stimulate the devil’s immune system, FAST tools are accelerating our research into developing a preventative vaccine to protect devils from DFT.

Why study animal immune systems?

COVID-19 has once again brought emerging infectious diseases onto the global stage. The ability to rapidly develop immunology tools for new species means we can jump into action when a new virus jumps into humans.

Additionally, species are going extinct at an alarming rate, and wildlife disease is increasingly threatening conservation efforts.

Understanding how the immune systems of other animals fight diseases could provide a blueprint for developing vaccines and therapeutics to help them.The Conversation

Andrew S. Flies, Senior Research Fellow in Immunology, University of Tasmania; Amanda L. Patchett, , University of Tasmania; Bruce Lyons, , University of Tasmania, and Greg Woods, Professional Research Fellow, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.