The Queensland government’s decision to quietly divert $2.7m from what it had previously promised would be a state-of-the-art koala research facility to build a rollercoaster instead was a public relations disaster.
But the Queensland Conservation Council director, Dave Copeman, is not mourning the loss of the jettisoned Future Lab wildlife research centre at Dreamworld, nor its impact on marsupials recently declared endangered.
“The fact that the most recent deforestation data shows that more than 90,000 hectares of likely koala habitat was cleared under the Vegetation Management Act is the real disaster,” Copeman said. “Not a koala tourism facility not being built.”
That description appears a far cry from how it was spruiked back in March 2019, when the then assistant tourism industry development minister, Meaghan Scanlon, trumpeted what she said would be Queensland’s first native animal genome research facility.
“The Dreamworld Future Lab will be a world-class research facility and will allow us to deploy experts to tackle some of the biggest issues facing our native wildlife – like the threat of chlamydia on the local koala population,” Scanlon said at that time.
More than three years later when Scanlon – now the state’s environment minister – faced a grilling from her opposition counterpart, Sam O’Connor, at budget estimates on Friday afternoon, Scanlon’s description of Dreamworld facility sounded much more aligned to Copeman’s.
“To be clear this matter falls entirely in the Department of Tourism and Industry development,” Scanlon said.
“It would be entirely inappropriate to transfer money from the Department of Environment and Science to a theme park.”
That line was backed by a government spokesperson, who told the Guardian that the Future Lab’s “primary purpose was to attract tourists from Asia”.
“The original concept was meant to attract overseas visitors from the Asian tourism market but global international travel bans during Covid meant that was pointless,” the spokesperson said.
They added there “were of course added benefits that aligned with the government’s priorities of preserving Queensland’s koala population”.
The deputy director of the University of the Sunshine Coast’s Genecology Research Centre, Prof Peter Timms, has been leading the fight against koala chlamydia.
Though he was never involved in the Dreamworld Lab – which was to partner with the University of Queensland – he said it is “always disappointing” to see money diverted from any conservation research.
“But I’m not sure it was the end of the world because it’s a complex process, saving koalas, and trees are what matters most,” he said. “And we keep knocking them down.”
But while land clearing is the number threat to koalas, he said that chlamydia is driving previously stable populations into decline.
And Timms has a solution that could make “a huge difference” to the fate of the koala: a chlamydia vaccine.
Timms said his team has developed a vaccine that is ready for production and is lobbying for $2.5m in government funds to roll it out nationally – $200,000 less than what was given towards the Steel Taipan rollercoaster.
But the Dreamworld Future Lab may yet see the light of day.
The Queensland government spokesperson said that “a lot has changed” since the decision in September 2020 to redirect the Future Lab funding to the Steel Taipan, a better magnet for domestic tourists.
Now that “international travel is back”, tourism officials have “reached out to Dreamworld to gauge their interest in restarting discussions about revisiting the koala research centre”.
Timms said that, if flying international tourists to hold koalas at tourist attractions helps the marsupials, “it doesn’t do it directly”.
“And that’s OK,” he said. “As long as you don’t misrepresent it.”
Copeman has his own suggestion for boosting tourism revenue.
If we want tourists to be able to come and see koalas, then we’re going to need to address the main driver in the loss of the species: habitat loss.
This article by Joe Hinchliffe was first published by The Guardian on 29 July 2022. Lead Image: The Queensland government diverted $2.7m in funding for Dreamworld koala research facility to build a new rollercoaster. Photograph: Loren Elliott/Reuters.
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