Excerpt from Koala Science News Issue 3, 2004: IS KOALA 'TOP UP' RATIONALE VALID?
The Australian Koala Foundation is concerned about a new key principle appearing in Victoria's Koala Management Strategy released 30/9/2004 that recognises the value of French Island's koalas as 'insurance against further declines on the mainland.' The non-government-funded organisation is calling on all Australians to take an interest in where conservation is heading, especially when it comes to native fauna and habitat. Specifically, it wants people to question the rationale behind replenishing species and debate whether they consider such an approach to be sustainable, even ethical. The alternative, according to Australian Koala Foundation research and conservation experts, is for the focus in southern Australia to shift to large-scale habitat restoration as part of a coordinated, whole-of-landscape approach. They suggest this 'tree planting' option represents a proactive - rather than reactive - approach that is more in line with the current thinking of many regional planning groups and Australia's growing landcare community. Further information on the issue of 'topping up' declining populations is provided in the below Media Release.
Habitat Islands - new fact sheet. (.pdf file)
Koala Habitat Revegetation Trials - A Spirited Approach (.pdf file)
(Article from the Greening Australian, Winter 2004 Issue)
PERSPECTIVE ON THE MANAGEMENT OF ISOLATED/ISLAND KOALA POPULATIONS
Presented at the Australian Veterinary Association Conference in Perth
DEBORAH TABART, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
AUSTRALIAN KOALA FOUNDATION
Koalas in South Gippsland may hold the key to the future survival of koalas in southern Australia but their habitat is afforded little or no protection under Victorian or Federal law. It is also subject to logging. Most if not all other koala populations in Victoria and South Australia (collectively I will refer to them as 'southern koala populations') have been established as part of an ongoing translocation program. They are highly inbred and beginning to show morphological changes. This is why the management of all koala populations in southern Australia and particularly the decisions made with regard to isolated & island populations have to be carefully handled.
It is the AKF's view that Koalas in South Gippsland, Victoria may well hold the key to the future survival of koalas in southern Australia as a result of the historical twists and turns that have taken place over the past two centuries. The South Gippsland koala population centred around the Strzelecki Ranges is believed to be the only surviving remnant of the original koala population that ranged throughout Victoria and South Australia prior to white settlement. Koalas in South Gippsland are the most genetically diverse of southern koala populations and as such are crucial in terms of long term conservation. It is important to protect the koalas of South Gippsland and their habitats, for the benefit of all southern koala populations.
Most other southern koala populations outside South Gippsland are founded from French Island stock and are highly inbred. These koalas are beginning to show morphological abnormalities such as one or no testicles, and because of their very narrow genetic base, could well be vulnerable to a population crash in the future. It is imperative that this fact is recognised by everyone involved in the management of southern koalas so they will then protect the koalas of South Gippsland and their habitats. Their genetic material could be used to strengthen other southern populations and afford all those koalas a good chance of long term survival.
The Australian Koala Foundation believes that until there is an accurate census of existing animals and a clear idea of what habitat is available on private and public land across the whole state, it should not be assumed that Victoria has viable koala populations. The same applies to South Australia. The AKF has commenced work on mapping the Strzelecki ranges in South Gippsland for its Koala Habitat Atlas, which produces GIS based maps which identify and rank koala habitat so that sound land-use planning decisions can be made for the protection of koala habitats and the management of remaining populations.
Habitat is a key factor in the debate of how to manage koalas. While we quibble over population estimates, the spotlight is turned away from ongoing habitat destruction, fragmentation and isolation. The loss of habitat caused by human intervention in this country is the root cause of so called 'overpopulation' by koalas, bats, cockatoos and other threatened wildlife. Calls to cull these natives to our country who are being forced into ever decreasing habitats while we continue to clear at one of the highest rates in the world, are irresponsible and completely crazy.
To understand the problems faced by today's koalas, it is necessary to appreciate the recent history of koalas in Australia. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s there was a thriving world trade in koala fur and by 1930, koalas were already extinct in South Australia, estimated at only thousands in New South Wales, thousands in Victoria and approximately 10,000 in Queensland. Approximately three million koala furs went to market during the early 1900s and as many as ten million were estimated to have been shot during that time. A six month open season on koalas in Queensland in 1919 alone yielded one million koala skins.
In 1930, American President Herbert Hoover banned the importation of koalas skins into the US and following public outrage in Australia, koalas were eventually protected in all states by the end of the 1930s, but their habitat was not protected and in most cases, it still isn't.
Because of the fur trade, people around Australia became concerned for the koala's survival and a 'handful' of koalas were moved from mainland Victoria to French Island and Phillip Island in the 1880/90s. The records of this period are poor but oral history suggests that a sealer presented his lover on French Island with a gift of a small group of koalas (thought to be as few as four). Koalas were also moved from the mainland to Phillip Island at around this time. In 1923, wildlife authorities in Victoria commenced translocating animals back to mainland habitats. Between 1923 - 1994 approximately 10,000 koalas were translocated from French Island, Phillip Island and other populations founded by their stock to mainland Victoria, Kangaroo Island and mainland South Australia.
While this translocation process has restocked mainland Victoria and South Australia where koalas had lived before the fur trade, the progeny of French Island koalas founded by as few as four animals makes up the bulk of koalas that have repopulated mainland Victoria and South Australia. They are highly inbred and as I said earlier, some are beginning to show morphological changes. Wild Koalas on Phillip Island are all but locally extinct due to the pressures of habitat loss, cars and dogs.
The Victorian Government boasts that its translocation program is the most successful in the world. Successful in terms of what? The AKF argues that its so-called success lies in the fact that it has moved large numbers of koalas. But there is no research to suggest that koalas are secure in the southern part of their range as a result.
French Island koalas continue to be a source population for translocation. Problems at Tower Hill, Mt. Eccles, Framlingham and Snake Island are an example of the real failure of translocations from French Island. One can only speculate on the exponential growth of problems caused by the further translocation of animals from Mt. Eccles, Framlingham and Snake Island to other parts of Victoria where they are currently being dumped. Those that survive anyway, given the information received by us after a recent translocation from Snake Island.
Fundamentally important to the future southern koala populations is the retention or re-establishment of suitable habitats. Well over 80% of Victoria and South Australia's original vegetation has been cleared. What remains is degraded farmland, small isolated patches of forest and an increasingly modified forest system where native forest is being logged and often replaced by pine plantations and monoculture eucalypt plantations.
This history and much more is part and parcel of the problems that managers, scientists, politicians and veterinarians now face in the management of Southern Koalas.
In the Australian Koala Foundation's opinion, the long-term management of wild koalas and their habitats, particularly in Victoria and South Australia, has been driven by bigger political motives that have stemmed from commercial exploitation of the animal itself and its habitat. For far too long, the koala has been blamed for the problems being seen in isolated remnants of forest and bushland. We acknowledge that Government agencies are attempting to find solutions for broader problems of land use that began at white settlement but we state emphatically that the koala is not the culprit. Poor land use practices and a dominant culture which "undervalues" wildlife are the root causes of problems of koala management.
The Australian Koala Foundation has been accused by some of not fully appreciating the extent of the over-population issues in Victoria and South Australia and I would like to challenge that notion.
I quote from a paper given by the University of New South Wales' Dr. Bronwyn Houlden at the 1999 AKF Status of the Koala Conference held on Phillip Island;
Houlden goes on to say "Inbreeding results in a loss of fertility, reproductive success and survivorship (known as inbreeding depression) in many plants and animals. Inbreeding could ultimately pose a serious threat to the long-term survival of the koala. Preliminary studies have shown that morphological abnormalities including unilateral and bilateral testicular abnormalities and other defects are prevalent in populations in southeastern Australia (up to 30% in some populations). These physical abnormalities may be a consequence of inbreeding in koalas."
"We have assessed the consequences of inbreeding in koalas by quantifying reproductive parameters in populations with a range of bottleneck histories, levels of genetic variation and inbreeding coefficients, to determine whether these variables are correlated."
"Koalas are at an ideal point for intervention, as many of these issues could be addressed by management strategies, including the introduction of unrelated stock (or semen) into island populations." (Houlden et al, 1999)
The AKF fully appreciates the problems facing southern koala populations. We also understand the complexities of the solutions that will be required to fix those problems. However, to date we have not seen any management in either Victoria or South Australia that is going to solve the problems. We are also confident that the problems are going to get worse.
In today's workshop I hope that we can work as a holistic team towards identifying the problems and then hopefully onto identifying solutions that will give relief to managers in the field, not to mention the koalas.
In order to move forward, we need to address the culling debate. I will explain why the AKF has opposed proposals to cull koalas and why we will continue to do so. We oppose a cull because it is wrong to even suggest it. We will never support the notion, nor regret our stance on the matter.
The AKF appreciates that the South Australian Taskforce headed by Professor Hugh Possingham made the decision to advise the South Australian Government to cull the koalas on Kangaroo Island. The AKF understands why the Taskforce made that decision, arguing that koalas were not native to the Island and therefore should be removed. 'Is it better to starve to death than to be shot?' questioned certain scientists in the media.
The AKF opposed the cull from the beginning. We opposed the cull because it is wrong from a moral point of view.
I understand the argument that Kangaroo Island should be free of Koalas because they were never there in the first place, but I and the AKF are realists and we knew that the politicians would never want all the koalas off the islands. They want them there to generate tourism dollars.
And what about Victoria? There is a media frenzy whenever there are calls for a cull.
It is wrong and it would instantly give land clearers all over the country the perfect excuse to sacrifice koala habitat to the bulldozers.
We all know the Politicians in South Australia decided against a cull, knowing that it would provoke world-wide outcry and a bad image for tourism. And that they opted for the expensive translocation and sterilisation process. By default the Victorians have followed suit.
The Media and the public are assured that the Governments are committed to doing the best by the koalas, with good science and good veterinary practices in hand. We constantly hear rhetoric about translocation and sterilisation being in the best interests of the bush that is damaged and in the best interests of the koalas themselves. However neither end result has been achieved. An ill conceived process that disregards social structure, habitat viability and dignity of the animals is doomed from the beginning.
It is imperative that Government takes full responsibility for koalas and treats them with the respect and dignity they deserve, especially given that they want to exploit them. It is even more important for the scientific and veterinary communities to have this understanding and respect and give the koalas genuine assistance.
Before the fertility trials began on Kangaroo Island and several times during my time at AKF we have tried to make scientists and wildlife managers in Victoria and South Australia aware of research conducted at Koala Beach in northern NSW on the social hierarchy of koalas. More importantly we have tried to explain to wildlife managers that an appreciation of social order is extremely important for management decisions especially with regard to the animals that exist in isolated habitats.
To date, that has fallen on deaf ears. Translocations are based on a "closest to the ground" mentality with little or no regard for social order, rather than a "which is the best animal to take" approach. They are also undertaken in a gung-ho fashion reminiscent of the wild west. We cringe when we see the techniques used to capture and transfer animals, often with untrained volunteers. In a moment, I will illustrate the cruelty inflicted on koalas as part of these translocations undertaken with total disregard for the animals' welfare and that of their families.
The AKF is disgusted by the fact that the koala has been caste as the villain in the over population debate. No-one can go into any isolated habitat and not see the damage that sheep, cattle and humans have wreaked over the years. How can the koala be blamed for all this degradation and how can we, as Australian citizens allow the international public to believe this.
Do you really think it is fair to blame the koala for all the land use problems on Kangaroo Island? Or on French Island where people burnt 8 tonnes of wood per day to feed a chicory industry and a salt industry during the early 1900s? Or indeed on the mainland where over 80% of the koala's original habitat has been destroyed?
Is it fair to blame the koala for years and years of poor land management and then if we do, is it fair to shoot them out of the trees while they sit there defenseless and unable to speak for themselves?
Did anyone on the South Australian Taskforce really believe that the Politicians and the public would allow a cull and if not, why did they engage in a culling debate in the first place?
I never believed that the Government would condone the cull. The committee involved were either pawns of the Government or incredibly naïve in believing that they would. I also found it extremely frustrating to be told by members of that committee that they had the koalas' welfare at heart and that the AKF was unreasonable because we would not allow them to be shot. "What fresh hell is this?", I thought to myself.
So then they opted for the translocation and sterilisation process - the soft cull as it were. Ironically in my opinion, those who advocated shooting the Koalas (sometimes vets) watched as these animals died slowly and painfully after botched veterinary procedures and translocation practices that showed little or no respect for this wonderful species.
We have evidence that animals have suffered from translocation and fertility control in Victoria and South Australia. Veterinarians among others have been involved in what I can only describe as cruelty.
We know that veterinarians with little or no bush experience have performed some of this surgery. We also know that Veterinarians working with zoos and other institutions have stood by helplessly watching as surgery is performed on these animals. They cannot speak out publicly for a range of reasons. The AKF is under no such censorship.
We have tag numbers and detailed descriptions that the public have given us, of large numbers of koalas who suffered greatly. I want it known that the AKF will continue to oppose this practice as long as it continues because of the appalling and cruel things that are being perpetrated on koalas in Victoria and South Australia.
I will quote from one woman who wrote to the Foundation;
Since then I have admitted to this shelter three koalas - tag number 243 - vasectomised male, dehydrated and thin - Ear tag number 143...comatose, dehydrated, thin. Tag 206 - female, dehydrated and thin, arrived comatose, consequently all have died. Tags 137 and 84 both taken from dead koalas are in my possession - both of these koalas were debilitated, thin, dehydrated, starving/malnourished....One that survived for ten days went trough a toxic stage. Interesting to note that none of the stitches where they had been sterilized had dissolved. I now have tags 241, 218, 245, 256, 117 - all these animals are now dead. Koala 141 is still in the camping ground but unhealthy."
Will the politicians in Victoria and South Australia admit to these animals being poorly treated? Will the Vets who performed the operations admit the animals have suffered and died at their hands?
If the problem is to be solved, then management solutions will have to be found that not only take into account animal welfare, good science and habitat quality, but that also deal effectively with political mandates.
And, the AKF hopes that in the future the koalas in Victoria and those who manage them will be seen as an asset to our biodiversity and our tourism industry -- not as pests to be eradicated.
Now that the United States Government has listed the Koala as threatened under their Endangered Species Act, I am hoping that our Governments will take heed. When I meet with biologists in the US, they assure me that overpopulation by inbred animals in isolated habitats spells trouble and is not an indication that 'all is well', as some in Australia would have us believe. In fact they warn us to take heed of the comments in the Federal Register with regard to the listing so that we do not remain complacent as a country in our management practices. Sadly, they have seen it all before in many countries around the world.
I know that in history's pages the AKF's stance on 'no culling' will be seen as correct. Culling is wrong and would set a precedent in this country that our koalas cannot afford. Can't you just hear a Queensland farmer saying "let's shoot these bloody koalas", because he wants to clear for further cattle grazing.
That is what is happening to the fruit bats down the eastern seaboard of Australia. The recent bat cull in the Royal Botanical Gardens of Melbourne is the end result of such thinking and I am appalled by it. So should every decent biologist and citizen in this country. When I hear a biologist call for a cull, I start to question his or her credibility and love of animals.
Aren't you tired of all this? I am and I want to find common ground where we can all agree on what needs to be done. Our Politicians do not know what to do, most of the managers on the ground don't know what to do and I know that many agree with AKF thinking. It is time for groups like the Australian Veterinary Association to lead the way and find solutions that will work.
It is time to take a real-world view and that real-world view is that no politician is going to remove koalas from Kangaroo Island or any other Island because they make money via tourism. They make huge amounts of money.
At present at least 500,000 tourists visit Kangaroo Island each year, in part to experience nature, and part of that is the koala.
The AKF's real world view is that if our Government is going to exploit the koala in one way or another, then it must give them the dignity and respect they deserve in return and manage them compassionately with a long term strategy, not just knee-jerk reactions.
With the money made from tourism, I expect them to manage the koalas properly. The AKF believes it can be done and I know it can be done with dignity, respect and consideration of the Koala.
When scientists and others try to lead the media and the public to believe that it is in the koalas' best interests to be shot, I cannot tell you how frustrated that makes me feel. It sanitizes the thought of killing and implies that somehow there is no other option. That is nonsense. There are plenty of other options and it is time for us to discuss them. I look forward to doing so in the workshop.
Some of the questions that need to be addressed include:
- Is it possible to stabilise all Island populations (and in that description I include islands of isolated habitat surrounded by cleared land)?
- What scientific disciplines are needed to achieve that?
- Does the lack or presence of chlamydia play a role in stabilising populations on fragmented and isolated habitats?
- Will the morphological changes now occurring on Islands as a result of genetic bottlenecks cause new management problems?
- How do you prevent further habitat damage from the animals that are moved constantly?
- Is further research necessary?
- Are current management protocols sufficient?
- Are there current management protocols?
- Is there sufficient knowledge of suitable habitat available to wildlife managers particularly in Victoria?
- Is the pressure of over-population in areas that are ready to collapse ecologically, driving the programme or is the programme sound?
- Is management addressed over all land tenures or just on Government lands?
- Does the Government have an overview of the situation over all land tenures?
- What role do vets play in the process?
- Are the vets who are currently involved suitably briefed on the holistic approach that is needed?
- Is there really a big picture view to the whole problem or just knee-jerk reactions when a politician is under pressure ?
I am convinced that the latter is the reality and I plead with all of you to understand that unless the politicians are given solutions that are politically expedient in addition to having sound management principles then the problem will not go away.
Please be clear, the AKF does not underestimate the problems of isolated koala populations and the damage they cause. But do not underestimate our determination to highlight the fact that this is not the koalas fault. It is the end result of 222 years of land degradation. Retention and renewal of habitat is the only answer in the short and long terms.
I am positive that vets will play a tremendous role in the future, but each of us must respect and endorse the views of others along the path to resolution.
I do not think that has happened in the past and I am confident that politicians and bureaucrats alike have used the infighting between different factions to divide and conquer for their own ends.
Hopefully this forum will recommend a way forward that will allow the Koalas in South Australia and Victoria to live in peace.
* * *
Emmins, J. (1996) The Victorian Koalas: Genetic Heterogeneity, Immune Responsiveness and Epizootiology of Chlamydiosis Ph.D. Thesis, Monash University.
Houlden, B., Montgomery, M. & Taggart, D. (1999) "Koala Conservation Genetics: An Overview" in Proceedings from A Conference on the Status of the Koala in 1999, Phillip Island, Australia, Sept.6-9, pp:19-22.
Phillips, S. (1994) Koala Management Plan for Proposed Searanch Residential Development Prepared on behalf of the Australian Koala Foundation for RDC Pty. Ltd.
Phillips, S. (1997) "Some issues associated with the translocation of Koalas Phascolarctos cinereus" Paper presented at Australian Veterinary Association Symposium.
Phillips, S. (1999) Habitat utilisation by the Koala Phascolarctos cinereus - towards a new approach for effective conservation and management Ph.D. Thesis, Southern Cross University.
Phillips, S. (2000) "Population Trends and the Koala Conservation Debate" in Conservation Biology 14(3) pp.650-659.
Sharp, A. (1995) The Koala Book David Bateman Ltd., Auckland, New Zealand.
Tabart, D. (1997) "Why the koala should not be culled, when the real problems are poor management and land degradation" in Australian Biologist 10(1) pp.42-48.
The nation's peak koala conservation body, the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) says that disease - not koalas - is to blame for the death of trees on Kangaroo Island.
Deborah Tabart, AKF Executive Director, has recently witnessed identical tree death called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome in the United States. Sudden Oak Death Syndrome is caused by a fungus called Phytophthera which was first identified on Kangaroo Island in 1994.
"The tree deaths I observed at Big Sur in California are identical to the images you see on Kangaroo Island. Authorities in the United States are at a loss as to why it develops in patches and I know this is the problem on Kangaroo Island" said Deborah Tabart.
"There are no koalas at Big Sur, but the trees are dying in exactly the same way" she said.
"The AKF does not believe that the koalas on Kangaroo Island are the culprits of the destruction of trees" Deborah Tabart said.
"We believe that the responsible authorities have not addressed some of the simple issues, like fencing degraded habitats and indeed the simplest task of all - planting more trees" she said.
"There are not to many koalas - there are too few trees" she said,.
"Habitat fragmentation, insufficient fire regimes, grazing, logging, farming and edge effects have contributed to the death of trees on Kangaroo Island. It is ridiculous to blame the koalas for the damage people have done" she said.
"It is time for the debate to be elevated beyond killing native wildlife to managing the land properly" she said.
The Australian Koala Foundation has written to the South Australian Environment Minister, the Hon. Iain Wells to ask for an investigation into the effects of Phytophthora on the trees on Kangaroo Island. A copy of this letter is available upon request.
"Imagine if all the koalas were culled on Kangaroo Island and the trees continued to die" Deborah Tabart said.
"Killing koalas will not solve the problem. Planting trees and good land management is the solution" she said. "Not the destruction of our native fauna."
Over the past few years there have been reports that there are "too many" koalas on Kangaroo Island in South Australia (SA) and some parts of Victoria such as Framlingham Forest, Mt Eccles, and Tower Hill and that to solve the problem of koalas overbrowsing the trees, they should be 'culled' - which is a polite term for 'killed'.
The AKF will never condone the culling of koalas or any other native animal. We believe that the core issue of habitat protection and restoration must be addressed in order to solve the problem. Native animals in Australia are surviving in greatly reduced areas of habitat as a result of the huge changes that humans have made to the environment. Until landclearing is stopped and trees replanted, there can be no solution. If we continue to reduce the amount of habitat available to koalas, how can we then justify killing them when there is not adequate food or shelter?
There is a problem, a very complex one. Koalas in these places are eating out their own food source. But rather than there being too many koalas, the AKF believes there are too few trees. Overbrowsing by koalas has been blamed for the death of eucalypts, but the AKF does not believe koalas are to blame. Other possible effects include insect infestation, edge-effects, phytophthora, hybridisation of the trees, salinity, reduced diversity within the forest as a result of former logging and general environmental degradation.
This situation only occurs in some isolated areas of habitat in South Australia and Victoria, and nowhere else in Australia. Elsewhere, it is the opposite - koala numbers are dwindling fast. The Australian Koala Foundation estimates that there are less than 100,000 koalas left in Australia.
WHY DO THERE SEEM TO BE TOO MANY KOALAS ON KANGAROO ISLAND, WHILE IN THE REST OF AUSTRALIA, THEIR NUMBERS ARE RAPIDLY DIMINISHING?
Kangaroo Island is a large island off the coast of SA. At the time of European settlement over 200 years ago, there were no koalas on the island. They are not native to the island but they are native to parts of mainland South Australia. During the early 1900s, there was a roaring trade in koala fur and millions of koalas were slaughtered in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. By the 1920s, koalas were extinct in South Australia. The fur trade ended by 1930 and later in the century, a handful of koalas from French Island in Victoria relocated to Kangaroo Island where it was thought they would be safe. They had never lived there before and while this seemed like a good idea at that time, it has had huge ramifications to the present day. This well-meaning act, combined with other circumstances, has caused an imbalance in the eco-system of the island.
Some points to consider are:
- Much of Kangaroo Island is cleared farmland, with a large sheep population. As new food tree saplings grow up, they are eaten by sheep, so that tree supplies are not being replenished. In addition to overgrazing, feral pigs, fires, weed problems and lack of fencing are all contributing to depleted seed banks.
- The bacterium Chlamydia, of which there are several strains, is endemic in koalas on mainland Australia and acts like a natural population control in koala populations. Chlamydia is mostly benign in populations with unlimited resources, but manifests in times of stress, such as the breeding season, when habitat is cleared and in cases where the carrying capacity of an area of habitat is reached and then exceeded. The weaker animals succumb to the disease, become sick, infertile or die, leaving the genetically stronger animals to continue breeding. Koalas originally introduced to Kangaroo Island were Chlamydia-free, so there isn't the natural population control which exists in most other koala populations.
- The Kangaroo Island colony is inbred. A small number of koalas founded the Kangaroo Island population. They themselves came from an inbred population in Victoria. The island situation does not allow for new genetic material to be introduced naturally into the population, i.e. genetically robust and healthy koalas cannot swim to Kangaroo Island from the mainland.
- Because it is an island, there are limited areas of habitat for dispersing juveniles to set up new home ranges and to allow the colony to expand. This causes unnatural situations where koalas are forced to share trees, and does not allow the trees to recover between browsings. (See information on 'home ranges' in the All About Koalas section of our website www.savethekoala.com).
WHAT COULD BE DONE TO HELP THE SITUATION ON KANGAROO ISLAND?
Why can't the excess koalas just be relocated to the mainland?
This solution is not as simple as it sounds. It is a costly and labour-intensive exercise. As well, there are enormous implications when you 'dump' koalas into habitats that may or may not have stable koala populations already residing there. Koalas live in socially stable groups and the relocation of Kangaroo Island koalas to new areas would have to be carefully researched and carried out so as not to destabilise the social structure of any existing population. Koalas newly released into the territory of an established population would most likely be forced out of that territory. Alternatively, inbred animals could take up the valuable habitat of genetically healthy koalas.
Where are the koalas to be released? Koalas are fussy eaters and may not find the eucalypts in the release area to be palatable, even though they may be the same species they have been eating. Different soil types affect the toxicity of leaves in trees of the same species. One of the most suitable places to release these koalas would be the south east forests of South Australia. But extensive clearing is currently underway in those forests, which makes them an unsuitable or dangerous environment for koalas.
Because the Kangaroo Island koalas are Chlamydia-free, they have no natural immunity to the disease. If they were introduced onto the mainland they would immediately be in danger of contracting chlamydia from the existing mainland populations.
Although relocations have been done in the past, there is no scientific evidence to say they have been successful. Relocating could be just a "soft cull" - the animals may ultimately die anyway. It would just take longer and no-one would see it happening.
What about sending the excess koalas to zoos?
Australian and overseas zoos and wildlife parks, as well as landholders in Australia, have offered to take the koalas. In addition to the relocation problems mentioned above, this could set a dangerous precedent, and could result in koalas from the wild being sold for profit. It also takes the pressure away from protecting koala habitat. Loss of habitat is undoubtedly the greatest threat to koalas in the wild today. Australia has one of the highest landclearing rates in the world and there are those who use the 'too many koalas on Kangaroo Island' argument to justify the continuation of landclearing in other parts of the country.
What if the excess koalas were shot?
There are some scientists and others who suggest that shooting koalas would be the best solution. Besides being totally unacceptable to most people, this would only be a short-term solution. All the conditions which caused the problem in the first place would still be present. Overpopulation would quickly recur. The Federal Minister for the Environment has assured the public that koalas on Kangaroo Island won't be culled. Imagine the international outrage if the SA Government went ahead with this plan.
Koala culling would also take the focus away from habitat protection. While this debate has ensued, wildlife authorities in South Australia and Victoria have resisted planting trees for fear that koalas would only eat them! The AKF believes this is nonsense.
What about artificial fertility control?
This is only effective for the life of each koala. It would have to be carried out on every new koala born into the population, and is expensive and labour-intensive.
What about instigating measures to preserve and propagate trees?
This could be achieved by commencing tree planting programmes in suitable areas, such as along creeklines, and then by fencing these areas so that the new saplings could grow without disturbance from sheep and other feral animals.
As the koalas are not native to the island (i.e. they are 'feral') shouldn't they ALL be removed?
This has been suggested by some people, and would certainly solve the problems on the island, but bearing in mind the points above, what would be done with the koalas which were removed? Tourism is a vital industry on Kangaroo Island and the koalas are an integral part of that. Thousands of tourists per year visit Kangaroos Island. Many islanders want to keep the koalas for their tourism appeal.
WHAT IS THE AUSTRALIAN KOALA FOUNDATION'S POSITION ON THE ISSUE AND WHAT ARE THEY DOING ABOUT IT?
The AKF believes that the issue is not too many koalas, but not enough trees. We believe that Kangaroo Island has enormous land managemenrt problems. The "koala problem" is just one small facet of these larger problems. However, something does need to be done to address the koala situation.
The Australian Koala Foundation does not agree with culling. We are confident that there is adequate collective scientific knowledge to resolve the koala issues on the island dispassionately, and with the best long-term interests of the Koala and the Kangaroo Island ecosystem in mind.
The AKF is concerned about the koalas on the island and about the furore surrounding them, firstly, because the koalas are already in some distress, and secondly, because the notion of "too many koalas" is counter-productive to efforts to conserve koalas on mainland Australia where they face serious problems (many of which are also obvious on Kangaroo Island).
Talk of "too many koalas" has provided a loophole for politicians to make poor decisions with regard to koala habitat protection in the rest of eastern Australia. Most recently, the decision by the Australian Government not to list the Koala as "vulnerable" under the Endangered Species Act was, in part, due to the Victorian and SA positions of "too many koalas."
The so called koala 'overpopulation' is a man-made problem which could be solved with considered scientific assessment. There is no 'quick-fix' solution. The problems are complex and will require long-term thinking and consensus among koala experts, those from other disciplines such as botany and wildlife managers to manage populations such as Kangaroo Island. Planting more trees and good scientific management by stabilisation of the population are good starting points.