19th August 2013

How many Koalas in any given landscape give the Koala population long term viability?   Is it 1000 or 5000 and over what area of landscape? No-one really knows  is the answer. Even though the Koala is probably the most researched animal in Australia, we still can’t answer this fundamental question.

As we approach the next federal election it is my view that the candidates who win the seats of Corangamite, Flynn, Indi, Maranoa, Mayo, Murray and Wannon will have the Koala’s fate in their hands. Those in the seats of Ballarat, Capricornia, Cowper, Fadden, Gippsland, Lyne, McEwen, New England and Parkes will have even greater responsibility because under their watch over the next three years they have the choice of watching Koalas decline to record lows or assisting their way to a long term recovery.      
In our latest assessment based on $8m worth of research, the AKF has identified how many koalas there are in each federal electorate in their original geographic range (map below). The results are shocking. It even scared me and I deal with these issues every day and have done for 25 years. 

See map below.

In one-third of federal electorates, the Koala is already extinct.   Why?  Many reasons, but the main ones are the result of the fur trade in the 1920’s and of course tree clearing.  Koalas were shot to extinction in South Australia and almost to extinction in Victoria.   Our country has a shocking history of management of the environment and species extinction. Our Governments struggle with the complexity and can’t cope or worse still don’t want to cope.  Sounds to me like they think, the sooner they are gone, the better. In Queensland alone (which includes our Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd’s seat) – 800,000 koalas were slaughtered in one month in 1927. They have never recovered. The current deaths from starvation, dogs, cars and disease are new phenomena really.    Interestingly enough the then Labor Forgan-Smith Government lost power because the people were outraged at the slaughter.   Wayne Goss suffered the same fate in 1995 because he underestimated the fur factor, and who were his political advisors at the time? Kevin Rudd (our current Prime Minister) and Wayne Swan (former Deputy Prime Minister), that’s who. I sometimes wonder whether the Koala has powerful enemies with very long memories.  

In the late 1920’s Norman Lindsay, May Gibbs and Dorothy Wall all used their creative talents and writing to outrage the people about the slaughter.  Blinky Bill’s father – Australia’s iconic equivalent to Mickey Mouse - was shot for his fur, making the children of that time and now, cry their eyes out. Some adults would too if we took the time to read it again and understand with adult eyes why Dorothy Wall wrote the story in the first place.   Australia protected the Koala in 1936 but its trees have never been protected.    The U.S. Government listed the Koala as vulnerable in the year 2000 and in May 2012 the Australian Koala Government listed Koalas as vulnerable in NSW, QLD and the ACT, one step down from endangered.  It has changed little if anything.  Trees continue to come down.  Industry wins and still whinge.   Their whingeing is endless.   In my opinion, as I said in my last Diary the only thing is for you, the people to really understand how serious the situation is not only for the Koala, but for our planet.   If you cannot get it right on a species that doesn’t eat anyone, doesn’t kill any stock and just looks beautiful, goodness knows what we can save.   Not to mention the image we present to a world we know loves this iconic species.  Don’t cut down their trees is the answer, and our environmental laws cannot prevent that very simple thing.   What happens in reality is that the front line troops in the forests plead with industry to do the right thing and Governments are preoccupied with factional fighting and wanting to please industry so they can get a “one stop shop” for approvals.    

Over these last 25 years as  the” Koala Woman” I have seen corruption, greed and political ineptitude that would shock the average citizen.   I have seen Ministers, some of whom are now under investigation, sign with a flourish, the documents that allowed industry to get “controlled actions” or “permits to take”.  These actually are nicely sanitised words for “make a political donation to me mate” and “you will get what you want”.  A permit to take, means you can kill Koalas.

We are confident the AKF science is right, our Governments should be ashamed but I know they are not.  I have seen their bureaucrats in the Senate Inquiry belligerently answering questions and, what’s worse, with no passion for their responsibility for our environment and wildlife.     We can show you their document that purports to know what is going on – you can be the judge to its rigour.

So where do we go from here for the Koala?  If one assumes, for example, that at least 1000 animals are required if a population is to survive for the next 100 years, then only 15 federal electorates have such numbers.  Only Maranoa in South western Queensland and Mayo in South Australia have really significant numbers, and in both of these electorates, numbers have been in decline for a number of years, due to either drought (Maranoa) or State Government management practices (Mayo – Kangaroo Island where they want to sterilise to extinction). The Koalas were put on the island many years ago after the mainland animals went extinct.  

There are 127 electorates in the Koala’s geographic range and the AKF has a considered opinion on each of them.   On our Act or Axe page you can read what our scientists think and what I think.  I have driven this country and I defy anyone to produce information that will prove we are wrong.   It is time for them to put up or shut up.  I will debate any politician, anywhere.

This Act or Axe portal is a golden opportunity for each winner of the seat to provide information to us from the community.  We could use this avenue to ask questions.  Why did they disappear?  Does anyone know of another colony that would increase the numbers?   Where do I need to plant trees that can enhance habitats?    In recent months I have watched our federal government pork barrel money to local councils with millions of dollars for Koalas and there is no strategic thinking at all.   Is money the answer and what is the cost of recovery? It is just another complete waste of time and money if there is no genuine intent to solve the problem and honestly, I don’t think they do.  As soon as the Koalas are gone (and in their mind safe in Zoos), industry will love it.    As I have learnt more and more as the Koala Woman, the approach to species management is broken. The talk of a one stop shop for environmental protection actually appeals, but only if the environment is the real winner.   Industry will always be able to meet criteria but it is always more profitable if they do not.

When we first nominated the Koala in 2006 (and it took 6 years and a Senate Inquiry to get it listed), there were 1,700 threatened species listed under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.  There are certainly more in 2013. The average cost of a Recovery Plan is $5 million which by and large only writes the document.    If all plans are written and they never will be, that is $8.5 billion. This is only writing the document, not the implementation by the way.   So, do our governments have an environmental deficit of $8.5 billion hidden. Yes, they do!  

Is there a way to write and implement a Koala Recovery Plan? Of course there is and perhaps I should call for a Koala Tax to cover it. The Koala brings in at least $1billion dollars in stuffed Koala sales and photo opportunities so that is an idea that could work. Perhaps we can invest a percentage of that income for the future.  Imagine a truly sustainable industry.  More and more stuffed Koalas on the shelves around the world, and more real koalas in the bush. When I have said this in the past, Tourist Ministers shudder and I have argued that in Africa they do it for many species.  We are so far behind and our tourism ministers languish while Rome burns.   They are happy to stick them in Zoos, bring them out for the Pope, the Queen and Oprah Winfrey, but they do nothing to protect a billion dollar industry.   What would happen if the Koala went to extinction? As a Tasmanian whose parents saw the last Tasmanian Tiger in 1936, and who watches closely about such things I know it took 50 years before the Cascade Brewery used the logo for beer.  Worse still and it is truly haunting that the Tasmanian Government now uses the Tassie Tiger as the State’s emblem.  How truly pathetic and with logging continuing unabated in the forests, they will have more extinct species to choose from in the near future.

Back in 2006 I had a researcher look at how many species on that 1700 list of shame were in Koala forests.   It was approximately 1000 and even  an economist could argue a single Koala Recovery Plan would provide the economy of scale to actually achieve recovery for the other 1000 species.  Protect those forests, use the Koala as an umbrellas species and approximately $5b could be saved just in writing the recovery plans!  Better still, healthy forests filled with biodiversity could be a realistic outcome.

OK, so where next? Do I, the Koala Woman believe the Koala can be saved?  Yes, I do, but it probably won’t be and writing this essay and looking at those electorates it is easy to see why. No science clouds this – it is just good old fashioned common sense, which is less than common these days.  

Our Governments of both persuasions do not want to upset industry and in the next election cycle some ghastly decisions are going to be made, that I think will send many koala populations over the edge.  As we have seen recently the dual party system wants total control by annihilating the green party and those that support it because it gets in the way of industry and union donations.  

It really is up to the people, like it was back in Norman Lindsay’s day.  Norman I think would shudder in his grave if he realised that his Magic Pudding character Albert the come again pudding who was the epitome of the rich resources this country had to offer were being wasted and squandered.  

I do hope the people will hear the clarion call from me and an organisation that has dedicated our 25 year history to understanding the plight of the Koala, because our leaders are not listening.   I wait with bated breath about what will happen on  September 7th, which ironically is the day the Tasmanian Tiger went to extinction.  His name was Ben and he was listed and protected 3 months before in July – our Governments wanted to look like they cared.