Koala Culling in Victoria; Please read Deborah's Diary here.
AKF is watching this issue very closely and our Board and staff are very concerned that the Victorian Government culled these animals in secret.
Deborah is currently formulating a list of questions for the Minister under direction from Veterinarians on our Board and in our supporter network. It is easy for the Government to say that this cull was needed because of welfare for the animal. AKF's views is that there are not enough trees, not too many Koalas. The Koalas are not eating themselves out of house and home. They were placed in habitat that was not good enough in the first place, as a result of translocations which thankfully have now stopped. Culling is never an option for the management of Koalas and their landscape.
Victoria is different to the rest of Australia and AKF does not believe the Victorian Government should have been allowed to be exempt from the Koala federal listing in May 2012.
This issue has been around for 100 years really and as far back as 2004, AKF asked the following questions of Parks Victoria. Whilst this information is horribly out of date, it does help to educate you, the reader about the complexity of the issues. Interestingly enough when editing this page in April 2015, it was interesting to see that the Otways was not even on the radar of Government at that time. If you need further information please contact email@example.com.
The following comments relate to excerpts from the Victorian Government's responses to frequently-asked questions as posted on the Parks Victoria web site April 2004 : http://www.parkweb.vic.gov.au/1process_content.cfm?section=89&page=25.
Koala Relocation FAQs
1. Why have koalas from some parks been sterilised and relocated?
Parks Victoria (PV): Manna Gum woodlands in a number of parks are under serious pressure from Koala overbrowsing. These parks include Mount Eccles National Park, French Island (National Park), Snake Island (Nooramunga Coastal and Marine Park) and Tower Hill Wildlife Reserve. At these parks, high levels of defoliation have led to the death of some Manna Gums and there is a high risk that total defoliation of the koalas food trees will occur.
Tree dieback is a complex phenomenon, around which causation and correlation are often confused. Scientists suspect a range of potential underpinning causes, which may in many instances be cumulative, ranging from salinity and loss of understorey to fragmentation, insect attack, inappropriate fire management, weeds and disease. Research into dieback is needed and thinking needs to be broadened to look at the bigger picture of forest decline (a phenomenon that is claiming extensive areas around Australia and is by no means limited to koala habitat). There is a growing body of research that recognises that the issue of tree defoliation and death cannot be exclusively blamed on koalas. Even Parks Victoria's own management plan for French Island mentioned declining habitat due to overpopulation by koalas as well as deterioration from other agents requiring special management. Evidence of other factors affecting die-back of eucalyptus was also documented for Raymond Island in 2004 by the Steve Irwin Conservation Foundation. In Manna Gum Woodlands, an association between severe dieback and a dense bracken (weedy) understorey was identified.
PV: This will lead to the slow, mass starvation of the koala population as has happened previously at numerous sites including French Island, Stony Point, Snake Island and most recently, Framlingham State Forest.
On Snake Island, the introduced Hog Deer grazes all emerging vegetation including Eucalypt seedlings. The extent of this grazing pressure is such that all remaining trees are basically of one age class. The seasonal herding of cattle onto Snake Island is promoted as an historical right but fails to mention the devastation these cattle cause to the native vegetation, soils and other landscape features of this already fragile environment. PV is quick to blame decades of mismanagement on one animal (the koala) ahead of the devastation caused by other introduced animals and bad management practices.
PV: To prevent this, and the subsequent death of other flora and fauna dependent on the forest such as the Brush-tailed Phascogale (listed as rare in Victoria) and the Yellow Bellied Glider, The National Koala Conservation Strategy (ANZECC 1998) identifies:
- Sterilisation; and
- Habitat manipulation (protection of individual trees)
as acceptable options for management of overabundant koala populations. Over the last several years, Parks Victoria relocated more than 6000 koalas from these parks to ensure that the overall survival and health of both forest and koala populations are maintained. Relocated koalas have been surgically sterilised to minimise the risk of overabundance occurring at the release sites. Relocation programs over the last century have ensured that koalas are once again found throughout all suitable habitat for them in Victoria.'
The trend for most populations situated within the koala's natural range is of population decline, in many cases to the point of local extinction. These small, declining populations are geographically isolated from one another. It is therefore misleading to imply that there is one great mega-population that is artificially connected via intervention (ie translocation).
The Victorian Government effectively moves koalas from degraded isolated habitat into other areas of degraded isolated habitat. While one population 'booms' (since the Koalas have nowhere to go), the other population is decimated (due to habitat decline, edge effects and other pressures such as road deaths). It has created an unnatural 'source-sink-source-sink' cycle. While this may, in the short term, give the impression of having solved the problem, it represents little more than an ad-hoc solution to a problem that requires long-term vision and serious commitment (i.e. the need for widescale habitat restoration). In conserving living ecosystems, flexibility and adaptive management are the key. In this way, land managers, planners, scientists and others need to acknowledge what 'works' and what 'doesn't work', learn from past decisions, and develop long-term strategies and visions - the same ought to apply to governments.
According to IUCN guidelines, a translocation is successful when a population is established which is self-sustaining and/or the problem in the source site has been resolved. PV cannot claim to have achieved this. Translocated koala populations on the mainland are not self-sustaining. Without constant translocation 'top ups' they would demonstrate the same severe levels of decline that other koala populations are experiencing (due to Chlamydia, dogs, habitat destruction and decline, cars and so on.) (In fact some are experiencing the same declines in spite of the 'top ups'). Nor have the "over-population" problems at the source sites been fixed, as these populations have been growing in numbers over decades now and require constant and repeated translocations. The koala populations at the source sites are not self-sustaining because of a range of factors including genetic and behaviour imbalances and the possibility of crashes leading to local extinction, but most importantly the lack of corridors for not allowing natural dispersion.
French Island, which does not fall into the koala's natural range, is described by PV as being over-populated by koalas and has been used as a translocation source for several decades now. Interestingly, the Victorian Government has a "manage to extinction" policy for many isolated habitats into which koalas have been translocated. This policy does not apply, however, to French Island, and we have to ask why. Perhaps, one of the reasons is that the government wants to keep this artificial situation going as a 'safety blanket' for when (or in case) the mainland population crashes due to continuous loss and fragmentation of habitat and other decimating factors. This is, of course, not a viable or sustainable option, particularly given the extremely high mortality rates recently recorded for translocated koalas.
2. What has actually occurred during the sterilisation and relocation program?
PV: Koalas are captured from trees using tree climbers, or where trees are small enough, by ground staff. Koalas are put in specially designed cages and transported to a veterinary surgery where their condition is assessed for suitability for surgical sterilisation or relocation. The Koalas have then been sterilised to ensure that risk of excessive population growth is minimised at release sites. Subsequently, koalas are taken to a site which has previously been assessed as suitable habitat with appropriate food trees. Release sites have been inspected within 2 weeks of relocation to make sure they have settled into their new habitat.
Koala captures have often been carried out by inexperienced volunteers / departmental staff who (perhaps understandably) jump at the opportunity of being involved in an event normally not accessible to ordinary people. The AKF, with the support of a number of professional groups and government agencies, has established guidelines for the veterinary care and capture of koalas. These protocols clearly explain how urinating and defecating are signs of stress in koalas and how, if they occur, any capture attempt should be immediately discontinued. In a recent report in the Weekend Australian (May 8-9, 2004, pp 18-21), the author witnessed one capture by a so-called expert and describes the scene as follows: 'She is balancing a long pole and noose. On her second attempt, the noose slips over the koala's head and she calls for a Hessian sack. A stream of urine falls from the branches above. Just as the koala seems in the bag, it panics, breaks free and jumps. The rope tightens and the koala swings precariously in mid air for a few seconds before being hoisted to a stable branch. Sorry about that," the woman says softly to her quarry... The koala releases a torrent of faeces; the woman is sweating profusely. Eventually the koala is bagged and lowered to the ground.' The Victorian Government, to date, has not been willing to agree to or adopt AKF's capturing protocols.
Translocation combined with sterilisation was the preferred method for koala management on Snake Island until a public backlash forced the state government to change its procedures. Koalas were sterilised and soon after shipped across to the mainland, transported by truck on a long journey to a forest. Throughout this process, no thought was given to the social standing of any individual animal, sex or age. Koalas which had just undergone major surgery were forced to leave their social groups behind, travel extensively to a new and unfamiliar environment with no follow up on their survival or long-term recovery from the operation. Many dead koalas were discovered soon after by concerned members of the public, who found bodies with ear tags and worm-infested sutures. No monitoring of these animals was in place. Procedures have only been changed after a public outcry.
PV: The safety and welfare of the animals involved is of primary concern and these operations are conducted within strict operational protocols. Parks Victoria convenes a technical advisory committee of independent experts to provide advice on the animal welfare, population and habitat management aspects of its koala operations. To ensure the koala's discomfort is minimised, qualified veterinarians determine the appropriateness of and carry out all sterilisation procedures and monitor the recovery of the koalas to determine their suitability for release or relocation.
PV: Koala population abundance and tree condition has been monitored at sites of high population density. This information continues to build knowledge for long-term, sustainable koala management in Victoria's parks.
Recently, a monitoring program was conducted that involved radio-tracking a number of the koalas that were sterilised and released at either a relocation site or their home park. This has enabled the detection of relocated koalas that have moved some distance from their release site.
AKF: PV should mention that survival rates revealed by the results of this radio-tracking exercise were so poor as to warrant a halt to surgical sterilisation and relocation and PV's assertion that it "can no longer be confident in predicting the suitability of habitat for koala relocation."
3. What is the effect on the koalas of sterilisation and relocation?
PV: Recent monitoring using radio-collared animals indicates that the survival of individual koalas that are relocated and/or surgically sterilised is highly variable and likely to be influenced by such factors as the initial health of the individual, the treatment it receives, the characteristics of the release habitat and the individual's feeding and movement response to the habitat. At one site, Snake Island, monitoring has not indicated any detrimental effect of sterilisation and relocation on the health and survivorship of koalas sterilised and relocated to similar mainland habitat. In contrast, mortality of animals from Mt Eccles NP has been highly variable and has been unacceptable.
The exact results from this recent monitoring should be provided - that is the proportion of koalas that died following the sterilisation procedure and/or relocation. PV concedes that the mortality statistics obtained by this trial were "unacceptable". Monitoring of the translocated koalas' fates did not commence until very recently. Like many other habitat remnants, Mt Eccles has been cut off from what would have been formerly connected habitat, today's koalas are unable to naturally disperse to other bushland. (For information on Mt Eccles refer to our fact sheet 'Habitat Islands - Perceived Koala Problems on Island Zoos').
In Victoria, translocation has been used as a management tool for nearly 80 years. Only very recently have there been studies to determine the success or failure of these translocations. The simple fact that koalas were seen in areas they were relocated to was considered sufficient evidence of a successful translocation. How many koalas did actually survive, what sex or age class was most likely to survive or how Chlamydia (a sexually transmittable disease endemic to most mainland populations, which can cause serious health problems including blindness, infertility and even death) would affect those animals in the long term was, until recently, not evaluated. (The expression of the disease has been linked with stress).
PV: It is not clear what the exact cause of death has been. There has been no evidence of infection due to surgical sterilisation. Koalas that died or were taken into care were malnourished and had lost a lot of body weight. This was particularly evident in koalas with a poorer pre-existing body condition. Some animals travelled extremely large distances (more than 20 km) from their release sites to find suitable habitat, losing body condition and becoming vulnerable to predator attack.
Koalas are considered to be solitary animals, and there is no scientific evidence that koala maintain familial structures. Relocation is therefore unlikely to have an impact on the social structure of koala populations.
Koalas are thought to be susceptible to stress which, among other things, can lead to the manifestation of disease and/or other signs of poor health. The act of capturing a koala and taking it from a familiar, established home range and breeding group to unfamiliar territory may lead to a range of negative symptoms associated with stress and displacement. Intrusive surgery and confrontation with predators, for example, might compound the ill effects on its health. In general, little is known about the highly complex biology of koalas and the role of stress. Furthermore, symptoms of management actions - like surgical sterilisation and/ or translocation - may be indirect rather than direct.
Relocating koalas is likely to impact on the social structures of the source and release populations, this impact varying in magnitude and nature depending on the current social standings of the different koalas captured. (eg removal of an alpha male would have major implications).
4. How many koalas have died to date due to relocation and sterilisation?
PV: The monitoring program indicates that mortality is highly variable between sites where koalas are relocated from, and is dependent on the nature of the habitat of the release sites. It is therefore difficult to estimate what the total mortality has been for the whole program. However, the improvement in our monitoring methods enables us to assess the factors which create an unacceptable risk of mortality.
Consequently, after consulting with Parks Victoria's scientific advisory committee, both surgical sterilisation and relocation of koalas from Mount Eccles NP have ceased. At this site, contraceptive implants will replace surgical sterilisation as a population control technique. At Snake Island, the cumulative stresses of relocation and sterilisation, and therefore the risk of mortality, have already been reduced by delaying relocating koalas for several months after they have been sterilised.
Managing native animal populations is not an easy task with a perfect solution - our overall aim is to humanely manage these animals to ensure that populations are maintained and that their environment can sustain them. The other alternative, one of no management intervention, produces unconscionable outcomes such as appalling suffering of the whole population through slow, mass starvation and ecological devastation so that the area can no longer support any koalas at all.
The question 'How many koalas have died to date due to relocation and sterilisation?' is not answered. At a minimum, PV should provide the numbers of koalas known to have died during its recent tracking study at Mt Eccles.
We, too, fear the outcomes of 'no management intervention', however, we consider this on a different level. The real issue is the need for widescale reinstatement and restoration of native vegetation across broader landscapes - not just for koalas but for all species. The plight of the koala mirrors that of other native species and biodiversity in general. It is the AKF's view that there is virtually no 'management intervention' when it comes to the suffering of the broader landscape - and for us, this is unconscionable. The 'management intervention' referred to above barely constitutes a bandaid approach. It's like sweeping something up that the wind will continue to blow in. What are the costs of these continuous translocations that apparently do not resolve the problems in both source and destination sites? What are the costs to the taxpayer (including staff costs and costs not directly recorded by a specific koala translocation budget?). And what are the costs in terms of the numbers of koalas that have died or suffered as part of this process?
5. Are there any alternatives to the current intrusive sterilisation techniques that are employed?
PV: Some of the reasons for the rapid expansion of koala populations are that they may previously have been kept in check through indigenous hunting practices and forest fire.
PV: Another possible cause is that the forests are now highly fragmented, which may not allow the koala populations at high densities to redistribute.
PV: To address this would require habitat linkages to be planted over a number of years, and it is not clear whether this would merely enlarge the area of over-browsing.
PV: In any case, at current population levels, it will only take a few years for the koala population to expand to the point where a large proportion of trees will decline and die. So we have an immediate problem which must, in the short-term, be addressed by managing the koala population.
PV: Management techniques to date have involved surgical sterilisation of females and/or relocation to other areas of suitable habitat, and protection of individual trees as sources of seed for forest regeneration.
A number of alternative techniques have recently been trialed. The most promising technique is contraceptive implants for female koalas. The contraceptive implants are similar to those widely used in humans but have not been used on a large scale in koalas before. No adverse effects have been detected in koalas to date.
PV: In the long-term, managing the structure of the forest may be a sustainable way of managing the issue.
AKF: This is an important point. But again, it seems PV is not willing to show long term vision - at least not now, in the short term - despite the fact that they suggest this may be 'sustainable'.
6. What steps will Parks Victoria now take to respond to this information?
PV: In view of the unacceptable mortality levels in koalas from Mt Eccles NP, Parks Victoria has ceased to surgically sterilise and to relocate koalas from this park. Without considerable research, Parks Victoria can no longer be confident in predicting the suitability of habitat for koala relocation. There is also some indication from the monitoring results that the general health of the koala population at Mount Eccles NP is lower than at other sites, which may compromise their ability to survive relocation.
PV: Parks Victoria considers contraceptive implants the most suitable technique for limiting the reproductive capacity of the population and therefore intends to conduct a large-scale trial of contraceptive implants at Mount Eccles NP. This trial will investigate the effectiveness of the implants in limiting koala population growth and the effects of the procedure on the health of the treated koalas. While no adverse effects have been detected in koalas to date, the trial will be closely monitored.
PV: Parks Victoria will engage with National Parks and Wildlife of South Australia, University of Melbourne, RSPCA, Catchment Management Authorities and forestry experts to gain the assistance and support required to achieve its primary objectives of protecting the health of Manna Gum Woodlands and the welfare of koala populations.
Contraceptive implants for female koalas will also be trialed and monitored intensively on French Island in partnership with University of Melbourne.
Koalas will still be relocated from Snake Island as they are being released to habitat that is very similar to where they were captured from.
PV: Since 2000, only koalas that have been sterilised more than 6 months previously have been relocated from Snake Island, and only to mainland coastal manna gum woodland very close to Snake Island. Monitoring has not indicated any mortality occurring in this situation. Parks Victoria will continue to monitor koalas treated in this way using radio-tracking. On Snake Island, ground dwelling grazers such as Hog Deer are thought to contribute to the browsing pressure on Manna Gum seedlings and options for their management are being investigated. This is a complicated issue as Deer are a Protected Species throughout Victoria under the Wildlife Act 1975 and Snake Island is formally classed as a State Faunal Reserve.
Secondly, it concerns us that an introduced species (deer) is a Protected Species throughout Victoria under the Wildlife Act 1975. Both cattle and hog deer destroy eucalypt regrowth, leaving an overstorey that cannot be replenished.
PV: To improve our understanding of the interactions between the forest and the koalas Parks Victoria is developing a modelling approach, with the support of forestry researchers and koala biologists, through Parks Victoria's Research Partners Program. The model will use information gathered from ongoing monitoring of koala population density & forest condition to simulate the likely forest structure/composition outcomes of different koala population densities. From this, a sustainable koala population density may be determined for a particular site, as well as the numbers of koalas that will need to receive implants in order to reduce the population over the long term.
AKF: We would prefer modelling efforts (and associated government commitment) that looked at the amount of habitat restoration needed in order to support sustainable populations of koalas (and other species). PV's above-mentioned initiative seems focussed on limiting koala numbers to suit a given remnant (a short-term, ad hoc perspective). Across Victoria, the size, health and connectivity of most forest remnants across the koala's natural range is likely to be inadequate for supporting sustainable populations of koalas (and many other species). It will also be crucial to protect what little koala habitat remains (including habitat on private land) if 'normal' koala population densities are to ever be ascertained. Such habitats may be used as a reference. We also wish to emphasise that while research is important and has a strong role to play in conservation, a growing number of scientists emphasise that immediate action is needed in order to protect and restore large areas of habitat, even in the absence of science, or we risk losing what it is we are trying to protect.