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Koala Myth becomes Scientific Fact

Deborah Tabart
Chief Executive Officer
Australian Koala Foundation
GPO Box 2659 Brisbane. Qld. 4001 Australia
Ph: 07 3229 7233 Fax: 02 3221 0337


The purpose of this paper is to discuss how an old myth has become scientific fact. This paper will show how the following words, "There were no bears on the Goulburn when the white men arrived, and I believe this is because they were an easy meal for an aborigine", has now become part of the scientific literature and how a comment made in the 1800's is now influencing government policy on the koala.

The paper will attempt to show how today's management practices have little respect for the koala and how historical misinformation about the koala and its habitat affects everyday management in this country. It will also attempt to highlight that the Federal Government and its scientific committees have used old thinking in the scientific literature to foil protection of the koala and its habitat.

Overpopulation of the koala has become a myth and that myth is getting in the way of koala habitat being protected from rampant tree clearing in Queensland and for respectful management practices in Victoria and South Australia

That myth has come, in part from misinformation in the scientific literature and while ever the myth perpetuates, it is going to make it harder and harder for AKF and others to get koala habitat protected on the mainland of Australia.


In 1996, the Federal Minister for the Environment decided not to list the koalas as Vulnerable under the then Endangered Species Protection Act 1992. This Act has now been replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) and it is the intention of the AKF to try and get the koala listed under the new Act. Failing that we want to introduce a National Koala Act.

The Humane Society last December asked the Federal Minister Dr. David Kemp to review the decision because in 1996 it was agreed that they would evaluate the koala's plight in five years. The Minister has again rejected that application. The Minister took the view that there was no current data and science to suggest that the koalas' status had changed over the last five years since the last determination. The AKF was not invited to comment and indeed knew nothing of the application. (Appendix II)

So, why does the koala not get the protection that we feel it deserves. Why isn't the koala protected at a federal level given its economic importance and its iconic international status? For many reasons. Mainly because the Governments, both Federal and at State level believe they are safe, well and living happily in the bush. Most bureaucrats give no thought to the fact that they are living in suburbia being killed in the thousands each year by dogs and cars. The Government believes that because they have the National Koala Conservation Strategy of January 1998 in place that somehow this document protects the koala for future generations.

Victoria thinks they are in plague proportions, so do South Australia. New South Wales believes they are in need of a Recovery Plan, which is the only State taking their plight seriously and Queensland has them listed as a common species.

In recent times the AKF has called a working group of koala people in South East Queensland to look at whether we can list the Koala, as Vulnerable under the Queensland Nature Conservation Act (NCA). We are hoping that we can secure a vulnerable listing at a regional level and from all accounts that Act is not capable of achieving that. Currently the population is considered to be around 10,000 animals over four local shires, Pine Rivers, Brisbane, Logan and Redlands. Last year approximately 1000 dead koalas were found and the Queensland Government estimates that at least another 1000 have been killed with no bodies recovered. So, one has to argue how long can a population of 10,000 lose 2000 animals?

With these figures I am confident that the Koala could meet the international criteria for listing as Vulnerable under the IUCN. However, because we have to meet the requirements of the Queensland NCA, we will not achieve a listing. Why, because we cannot prove that the animals are disjunct. That means we have to prove that they are completely isolated and it means that while ever there is recruitment into this population that you cannot presume or prove that the population will go to extinction in the next few years. The Federal EPBC Act cannot step in because the koala is not listed as a species vulnerable to extinction. And so, it becomes a vicious circle. You cannot get them listed because they are not listed!

In Victoria, the Government believes that overpopulation in Mt. Eccles, Framlingham, Sandy Point, Walkerville, Raymond Island, French Island and Snake Island constitute that all koalas are safe in Victoria. People all over the world are confused by the debate about too many or too few koalas in Australia.

The purpose of this paper is, however, not to discuss overpopulation. The purpose of this paper is to try and expose how the myth of overpopulation in the past is clouding the judgements of governments and managers today. This in turn has led to management practices that have little respect for the koala and its welfare and worse still stops legislation being able to step in and protect its habitat.

Overpopulation has become a myth and that myth is getting in the way of koala habitat being protected from rampant tree clearing in Queensland and for respectful management practices in Victoria and South Australia. It also helps to stop the koala being protected in Queensland from massive land clearing that occurs on a daily basis in the Brigalow and Mulga lands.

That myth has come, in part from misinformation in the scientific literature and whilever the myth perpetuates, it is going to make it harder and harder for AKF and others to get koala habitat protected on the mainland.

AKF believes that dead trees are a result of historic land clearing. It is also a result from deer, sheep, cattle, and pig grazing. In many places, bracken, fire and disease have all contributed to trees getting sick and ultimately dying. American biologists have suggested to me that the koala may stay in a tree until it dies because sick trees increase their sugar load as a way to try and heal. If this is the case it answers why a koala will just eat a tree to its death and then die itself rather than move to another tree in the forest which is what you see on Kangaroo Island and Framlingham. They become hooked on the taste perhaps?

The overpopulation myth is hard to argue against because obviously we can see koalas in trees and obviously those animals have contributed to the death of some forests. Over the last few years I have personally visited every site that is currently experiencing dead trees and increased koala numbers. I believe I can realistically evaluate what I have seen. In most instances, the koalas are what I would call "the last man standing". They are the visible effects of "events cascade" which have occurred over 200 years. In some places, hog deer are eating the regrowth. In others, bracken is helping to kill the trees, but in each case the managers just see "two many feral little critters" and either want them culled or controlled in some way.

Where does this attitude come from? It is my view that it comes from years of misinformation and I believe it suits our Governments to allow this misinformation to continue. It is also reflects the lazy or the overworked land managers who have not been inquisitive enough to think broadly about what is causing the trees to die. Many managers just accept the literature that they are pests and overabundant and proceed accordingly to try and cull then, sterilise them or research on them. This results in an approach that has total disrespect for the individual koala and for the species in general, particularly in Victoria and South Australia. Currently there are large numbers of koalas being experimented on, some of which will be killed in 2003 for scientific purposes. The koala has become a scapegoat for poor land use over many years and it is easier to just blame the koalas than really face the crisis that our country is now in, environmentally. On Snake Island for instance, there is the ridiculous situation where the koala is being sterilised and translocated and a Southeast Asian hog deer is protected by the IUCN redlist. What is that about? How did that happen?

This lack of respect for Koalas has in part come from another myth. That myth is the fact that koalas historically were in low numbers at white settlement. It has been argued by Roger Martin in a paper entitled "Of Koalas, Tree-Kangaroos and Men", that "In Victoria the assumed predators of the Koala-(Aborigines and Dingoes)-had been eliminated shortly after European settlement. Harry Parris has argued, in an article which was re-printed in 1948 (Parris HS, 'Koalas on the lower Goulburn', Victorian Naturalist, 64, pp. 192-193, 1948), that Aborigines were the more significant of the two. Parris' forbears settled on the Goulburn River in the 1870's and, relying on their recollections and other published accounts of early settlers, he reconstructed the changes in Koala abundance in the area from the time of white settlement. He found Koalas were not mentioned in any accounts prior to 1850, occasionally sighted in the early 1850's, abundant by the late 1860's and in the thousands in some areas between 1870 and 1890. He observed that this increase coincided with the annihilation of the resident Aboriginal population and suggested that it was their hunting that kept Koala numbers low. Despite his failure to consider the role of other influences, such as Dingo predation and bushfires, I found Parris' argument most appealing. There is no doubt that Aborigines were significant predators of Koala-numerous references in the contemporary literature attest to this. There is also no doubt that the decline of the Victorian Aborigine began around 1840. Intuitively, however, I found it difficult to accept that hunting by humans was a significant force in regulation the abundance of a large mammal species".

I am glad that Mr. Martin found this notion appealing, but I do not. Interestingly, he also had doubts about this, as did his reviewers who said "although it does present a plausible story, (the treatment of) historical population changes are speculative and unsatisfying, because of the poor data base available.

Given that Mr. Martin and his reviewers had doubts on this matter, then how does this thought get "into the literature". Because it did it has become a dangerous notion for the koala as it continues to affect how managers in Victoria and South Australia, think and deal with koalas. In fact one could argue that this myth was one of the contributing factors to the koala not being listed in 1996. Mr. Martin and others continue to flaunt this myth at every opportunity and condemn anyone who would argue otherwise.

When Dr. Tim Flannery, the then Curator of Mammals at the Australian Museum in Sydney was asked whether he supported the nomination of koalas as vulnerable under the federal legislation he replied ".the discussions of the historic status of the species are particularly poor as they do not cover the historical work by Parry (sic) and others which suggests that the Koala was rare at the time of European settlement. He also stated that the contention that Koala numbers are currently low is poorly substantiated, neglecting much relevant material".

Was Dr. Flannery referring to Mr. Parry or Mr. Parris? AKF has checked the literature and we cannot find a Parry dealing with historical data on the koala. So, we can presume he meant Parris. How relevant is Dr. Flannery's incorrect comment when dealing with the issues of habitat destruction in 2002. What relevance does this have to whether a species should be listed now? Are we meant to accept, that because of Dr. Flannery's eminence we must believe that his comment should be taken into account. Clearly the Australian Government did and they also accepted another eminent scientist when he said that "there is no evidence that Koala populations are threatened by forestry activities, contrary to the opinions expressed in the nominations. He stated that Koalas are the species of arboreal marsupial most closely associated with intensively logged forests, including plantations, and do not depend on mature forests". Again, the Government felt that this was fact. In another paper, I am confident I could argue that this is not fact but a convenient myth.

The myth is further perpetuated by Dr. Tim Low in his book "The New Nature" where he quotes Harry Parris again "Harry Parris had the same idea in a later era. Growing up in the Victoria's Goulburn River in the 1880's he remembered crying koalas stirring his childhood sleep. Then Parris learned of an earlier settler, in the 1850's who went for three years before seeing a koala". Not, in this quote, Dr. Low has said that it was Parris growing up in the valley. Mr. Martin, said it was his forbears. I am not sure who is correct, maybe neither of them.

The theme of this AKF Conference for 2002 is ""How the Past Affects the Koala's Future" and I would argue that this notion of whether aboriginals killed large numbers of koalas is now a myth and that is currently affecting current management. Why? Because some scientists and managers believe that the koala numbers in the early 1900's were an aberration and that it justified having a fur trade. They believe, I think, that low numbers of koalas now is normal and that when they see koalas in isolates in large numbers that it is a problem. They cannot see past this and are starting to treat them as pests. Indeed the Australian Mammal Society earlier this year held workshops on "managing pest species, flying foxes, kangaroos and koalas". Indeed the Minister for South Australia declined our invitation to send koala scientists to this Conference because the budget had already been allocated for them to attend the Australian Mammal Society so they could "explore the logic and rationale behind management programs for over-abundant native mammals".

I am convinced that at white settlement there were large numbers of koalas and I do not believe there is any evidence to suggest otherwise, other than the musing of Mr. Harry Parris and those that have echoed him. The literature is riddled with Mr. Parris' thoughts. In fact the myth has become so widespread that Mr. Parris is no longer cited, but his little thoughts have become part of the literature. Mr. Martin in his paper above, extrapolated on what Mr. Parris was thinking and suggested that koalas were missing between 1840 and 1850 and then they exploded after that time (which he currently thinks about modern koala populations) and to me, he has no basis for these thoughts other than the fact that aborigines eat native species. Perhaps they didn't like koala meat? Perhaps only some tribes ate koala? Perhaps the aborigine managed the koala well? Perhaps the white settlers just weren't looking up? Anyone who has been looking for koalas even with animals fitted with radio-tracking devices will know they are almost impossible to see. If white settlers did not expect to see such a strange animal, perhaps they didn't.

J. L. Kohen in a paper entitled "Aborigines and Marsupials" says "Aboriginal Use of the Koala. One of the animals, which may also have been impacted by Aboriginal hunting, is the koala. The adoption of edge-ground hatchets in southeastern Australia within the last four thousand years would have significantly influenced the capacity of Aborigines to exploit this essentially sedentary animal as well as many other arboreal species including the possums and gliders (Martin 1994). Indeed, the relatively low population density of the koala in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century is implied by the failure of anyone in the Sydney region to see a koala until the early 1800's, and even then only a foot was provided by Aboriginal people who had presumably eaten the rest of the animal. That koala populations had reached high levels by the end of the nineteenth century cannot be denied, given the enormous numbers that were being hunted for their skins in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, it is not at all clear that the densities were initially high when Aboriginal population densities were high. Once Aboriginal populations declined, it may be that the koala populations increased. Perhaps some of the problems associated with contemporary koala populations, which live at high densities in localised habitats, are the results of the cessation of Aboriginal hunting".

Mr. Kohen says that we "cannot deny that they had increased in numbers by the turn of the century" and I am glad that he has thrown doubt on the notion about aboriginals killing them, but the point I am trying to make is that he is now quoting Martin not Parris.

Kohen quotes Martin who quoted Parris and it becomes scientific fact. This happens time and again in what I regard as a flawed scientific process.

Perhaps koala's numbers were always high . Perhaps it wasn't the cessation of aborigines hunting koalas that increased koala numbers. Perhaps there were large numbers of koalas in Australia, but not around Goulburn where Mr. Parris mused. Perhaps the early settlers weren't in areas where koalas were. As a Tasmanian, I could argue that many of the original settlements were in Tasmania and of course there are no koalas there. Perhaps I should start that myth and see how long it takes to get into the literature and become fact. It only took a few years for this myth to become fact after Mr. Martin and others regurgitated Mr. Parris' one-liner. And a one-liner it surely was.

Who was Mr. Parris? No-one appears to know. He wrote his article in Victorian Nature Vol. 64 in 1948, or did he? Two researchers have different views. One said his forebears lived then, another said it was him. Athough we are led to believe that he was qualified to make his statements, when one looks at the article (Appendix 1), I find it difficult to believe that anyone would take his unsubstantiated musings seriously. The whole document consists of less than 1000 words. And the key sentence is ".there were no bears on the Goulburn when the white men arrived, and I believe this is because they were an easy meal for an aborigine".

Apparently Mr. Parris had "thought about this a lot ..and concluded that the only way to check it would be to read every book I could get that had been published before 1856 of men who had travelled in this country, from Major Mitchell onward" He carefully "read over twenty books and not one of those men saw a bear in the Goulburn country, whereas each traveller in Gippsland recorded bears".

It is my argument that this myth has now been extrapolated by some to argue that killing or culling koalas in 2002 is an acceptable practice for wildlife managers because koalas were traditionally hunted and their numbers kept low by aborigines back in the 1800's. What relevance is that to today. This is a dangerous myth particularly when cars and dogs take over as excellent predators for this species.

This Conference was publicised far and wide and we sought papers on the historical influences that have affected koala habitat. We also sought papers that would encourage debate from speakers in the arenas of plant pathology, tree health and land ecology/health of ecosystems, because we believe that these are the sort of scientists who need to be involved in how to manage isolated koala habitats. Interestingly very few have been able to do so, because land managers have not employed them to think about these issues because the land managers are stuck back in the early 1900's, not living in the 21st century. They are stuck in old thinking and if you believe my premise, stuck in a myth that has no scientific basis.

AKF will not accept that the koala is totally responsible for the defoliation and degradation of their habitat, and believe strongly that there are additional factors at work including tree disease, salinity, edge effects, fungal infections and pollution. It is time that Governments stood up and accepted that land management particularly in Victoria and South Australia must be faced with twenty first century thinking. Management of land by managers and conservationists today and beyond will need multi-disciplinary teams working together to find holistic solutions to problems such as Kangaroo Island and Framlingham Forest.

When that happens, I can see a future for the koala and its habitat. To date, after nearly 15 years in this job, as Executive Director of the Australian Koala Foundation, I sometimes feel that we are fiddling while Rome burns.

So often we focus on small problems and believe it or not I believe Framlingham and other isolates are small problems when you compare them to the rest of Australia. The koala is suffering from the problems that our country is currently facing. Koalas die in bushfires and in drought. Koalas and their colonies are affected by broadscale land clearing. The koala is often penalised for being too cute. Many wildlife groups condemn both the koala and the AKF for not appreciating the bigger picture.

I beg to differ. If the koala is to be saved, then the bigger picture must be dealt with. Until we get our landuse under control, the koala is not safe and this is ridiculous given that it is one of the world's icons and that it is a key tourism attraction for our country.

If you cannot save the koala, it will be impossible to save our bush. 

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