The uncertain future of the koala

Author: Kotryna Celikaite

More attention needs to be paid to the welfare of Australia's koalas. Picture: alh1 on Flickr
More attention needs to be paid to the welfare of Australia’s koalas. Picture: alh1 on Flickr

The smiling face of an oversized, stuffed koala looms near the entrance to the Phillip Island Koala Conservation Centre.

Fitting, as koalas often remind visitors of living teddy bears. Tourists and locals delight in the iconic marsupial, yet starvation, habitat loss, and human intervention have put a considerable strain on koala populations.

In 2013 and 2014, up to 700 koalas were euthanised in Cape Otway as a last measure to put starving animals out of their misery. To blame are varying factors, together with years of dead-end management strategies.

Land clearing has resulted in the destruction of more than half of Victoria’s native bushland. According to the Victoria National Parks Association, Victoria is the most cleared state in Australia. The lack of habitat, together with the problem of koalas eating away the remaining gum trees, resulted in an emergency situation in Cape Otway.

“It just got to a crisis point,” says Deakin University lecturer on ecology and wildlife damage management, Dr Desley Whisson.

“When you’ve got animals that are at death’s door, there’s nothing else you can do but put them out of their misery,” she says.

In 2012, koala populations in Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory were listed as vulnerable, with threats such as habitat loss, climate change, and urban expansion facing koala populations.

Victorian koalas, however, face the opposite problem, with populations in some areas “too large to be sustainable for their habitat”.

Koala Conservation Centre nature park ranger Stefan Poll said koalas in the Cape Otway region faced multiple threats.

“Probably us. Humans. Cars. And the clearing of land,” Poll says.

Australian Wildlife Protection Council secretary Vivienne Ortega says habitat loss and fragmentation of habitat are major reasons why koalas in Victoria are struggling, and that the key to koala conservation is habitat preservation.

“Victoria’s the most cleared state of all, and koalas only eat particular species of eucalyptus, and they don’t travel far; they’re very territorial animals,” she says.

“We need connected corridors of habitat. Connected, not fragmented and cut up into small pieces.”

A document released by the Threatened Species Scientific Committee outlines how koala populations are disconnected from each other, distributed within “a number of populations that are separated by cleared land or unsuitable habitat”.

Wildlife corridors connect areas of suitable habitat for various species of fauna, enabling them to safely move throughout the environment in search of resources. A lack of such corridors results in populations becoming stranded in an area, clearing it of food sources, and starving.

And for slow animals such as koalas, the need to cross roads to get to food can be fatal. Some areas of the state have implemented the strategy, but improvements are always needed.

Poll says Phillip Island has corridors from one side of the island to the other. “But … some of those corridors cross roads, so we have to be aware of that,” he says.

Victoria’s Koala Management Strategy was released in 2004 by the Department of Sustainability and Environment, and outlined that while action needs to be taken to manage over-browsing of trees by koalas, culling is not supported as a means of population control.

Koalas in the Otways have cleared the gum trees, resulting in starvation. Picture: s13n1 on Flickr.

Eleven years later, the situation has changed, but not improved. The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning put out the 2015 Cape Otway Koala Management Action plan, which outlines euthanasia of sick koalas as a possible outcome of health checks currently being carried out in the Otways.

After sterilisation and euthanasia of sick koalas, translocation is the other option presented in the plan.

Dr Whisson says management methods such as sterilisation and translocation have a role to play in koala population management, but it is not feasible to rely on them when the authorities with the resources and power to implement such strategies rarely do so in time to make a difference.

“Ten years ago the population was of a size that you could go in, sterilise female koalas such that the population wasn’t increasing, or wasn’t increasing at such an alarming rate,” she says.

“So it’s all about trying to predict where problems are going to occur, and taking action at an early point. And if you do that then the costs for mentioned programs are going to be much less if you’re dealing with far fewer animals. But of course our governments don’t think that way.”

The over-abundance of koalas in the area has led to the destruction of native gum trees, and such over-browsing has left large numbers of koalas perishing from starvation, and dropping dead without any human intervention.

“Even if you took every single one of those animals into care, you would never be able to reverse that state,” Dr Whisson says.

“A koala can only do without food for so long until it ends up with kidney damage. So any of those animals – you take them into captivity and feed them lots of leaves – they’re still going to die because the damage has already been done.

“So it was crisis point, which meant that euthanasia was the only humane option. And it really only addresses a small part of the problem because there were probably thousands of koalas dying by themselves,” she says.

Ever since koala populations in Victoria hit an extreme low in the 1920s, reintroduction from other areas resulted in the overabundance that occurs today. Koalas live in all areas of the state where the habitat is suitable.

A koala conservation strategy plan proposed in 2009 by the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council is one more document suggesting translocation as a solution to koala over-abundance.

However, the large number of animals affects the cost-effectiveness of such programs, and there are “no guarantees that individual koalas will adjust well to a new habitat”.

“And ultimately we’ve lost a lot of manna gum habitat, and I doubt we’ll ever be able to replace it. That’s the sad part,”Dr Whisson says.

“Any environmental damage is usually irreversible.”

With canopy recovery of manna gums a great concern for the suffering koala populations in Victoria, the Conservation Ecology Centre (CEC) based in Cape Otway has headed programs to plant tree seedlings in areas strongly affected by declining manna gums numbers.

“The CEC has been using innovative approaches to protect a few healthy trees in order to gather seed and grow seedlings. Last year the CEC spearheaded a program to plant new trees across the Cape – over 80,000 young trees were planted by an army of volunteers,” a centre representative wrote in a recent press release.

Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning spokesman Nick Talbot says manna gum trees are important, and their clearing causes koalas to starve, which results in a need to euthanise sick and weak koalas.

“At present the manna gum woodland canopy cover is less than 50 per cent in some places and the percentage of trees killed is up to 35 per cent,” Talbot says.

“The interventions were necessary to prevent suffering of koalas because they weren’t able to find enough food. Population densities were reaching up to 20 koalas per hectare at Cape Otway.”

A sustainable density is believed to be about one koala per hectare, according to the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning’s Cape Otway Koala Management Actions plan.

Dr Whisson notes that high koala density isn’t spread evenly throughout the state, but land clearing can cause the rise of koala density in some areas.

“The overpopulation issues are really confined to quite small areas, with maybe the exception of the area around Mount Eccles where there’s now a lot of koalas moving into blue gum plantations.

“Those plantations are being harvested, so it creates a lot of issues for the native vegetation throughout those areas because koalas are forced into those and become overabundant and cause impact,” Dr Whisson says.

The Australian Wildlife Protection council frequently lobbies for more reserves for animals, with government responses often coming in slow.

Ortega says they’ve been pushing this position for years.

“We’re part of a coalition of wildlife corridors, trying to get more habitat for them, and interconnecting habitat. I mean, koalas are not the same as other species. They don’t really move around as much, because they’re a tree-dwelling species.

“Australia is the biggest exterminator of mammals in the modern world. We’ve got more mammal extinctions than any other country.”

According to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, “one out of three mammal extinctions in the last 400 years have occurred in Australia”. A recent study published on animal extinction in Australia since European settlement concluded  Australia has an unusually high level of mammal extinction when considering the country’s generally favourable conditions for native fauna.

While koalas are not endangered overall, the range of problems facing them is varied, with different parts of the country providing unique challenges.

Dr Whisson says overpopulation issues at Cape Otway should not overshadow the fact that koala populations in other parts of Australia are in dangerous levels of decline.

“There’s a number of other locations where koalas are increasing to the point where they have major impact on their habitat, but there are other areas where there is a decline, and nobody tends to look at those declines,” she says.

Ultimately, the task of pushing the preservation of not just Victoria’s koalas, but Australian animals in general, falls to the public.

Poll says there are benefits to spending more on the environment. “I think more money into wildlife would be a big benefit for future generations,” he says.

Dr Whisson says people can force the Government into taking more action.

“The public ultimately drives what governments spend money on. And we all selfishly want all of the infrastructure that goes along with the city. And environment, I think falls well down on the list,” Dr Whisson says.

“It’s a complex issue, and unfortunately we’re just having to react at a late point.

“If this issue would have been addressed 10 years ago we wouldn’t be talking about it now.”

First published in MOJO News 23 June 2015.

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