Thursday, 14 Sep 2000

WALGETT, New South Wales

I had much to contemplate today during a long drive. On Monday, a letter arrived which has preyed on my mind. It contained some poignant photos of three koalas that had died in a tree outside a property in Victoria, a southern Australian state. The land around this woman’s property has been cleared for many years and a 300-year-old River Red Gum (a eucalyptus) was the only tree the koalas wanted to feed on. She rang me several weeks ago telling me that the koalas had been living in this tree for years and that the tree was now nearly out of leaves.

Two koalas in the dead tree.

What I find amazing is that there were other trees nearby which she had expressly planted for koalas, but they wouldn’t touch them. Why? Who knows, but it shows how complicated restoring land can be. It makes me wonder about the long-term implications of clearing land in this country and losing native seed stock. I’m not sure whether the trees that were planted were cultivated elsewhere, but it is really worrying to think that there was the right food there but for some reason the koalas would not eat it.

This woman knew that the tree was dying and the koalas were dying. She was incredibly distressed and had contacted various government authorities to try to get someone to help. Sadly, koalas are seen as a pest by government departments in Victoria and no help was offered, other than to shoot them. I rang a local department head myself and asked him to do something to help, but all he did was suggest that someone could come and move the koalas — at a cost of $300.

This koala died soon after the photo was taken.

Eventually nature took its course and the koalas dropped from the trees and died. The koala in this photo, which died a few hours after it was found at the base of the tree, looks so innocent and vulnerable. I feel very angry that this wonderful animal had to die like this, not because it had done anything wrong but because of 200 years of land degradation in Australia.

The face of this koala reminds me of a gorgeous children’s book about Australia — The Magic Pudding. The author, Norman Lindsay, a conservationist of his day (the movie Sirens depicts his life), had koala characters called Uncle Wattleberry and Bunyip Bluegum. These characters were brave, intelligent, humorous, and represented everything Australian. Norman Lindsay would be shocked to see the face on this dying koala.

Uncle Wattleberry and Bunyip Bluegum.

It’s hard to comprehend that people can see koalas as pests, but that is because in some parts of Victoria and South Australia there are isolated patches of habitat where koalas have eaten out the food resource and killed the trees. Many people, including some scientists, want to kill the koalas, but the Australian Koala Foundation has opposed this. It is our view that there are not too many koalas; rather, there are too few trees for them to live in.

Farming practices designed in Europe were introduced to Australia by our first settlers and they are not suited to our fragile continent. Well over 80 percent of Victoria’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 replaced by plantations.

In addition to the land-clearing, koala populations were decimated by the fur trade in the early 1900s. It’s estimated that up to 10 million koalas were killed throughout Australia, and they were completely shot out of the state of South Australia. That seems amazing today when we estimate that there are less than 100,000 koalas left in the wild!

The problem of overcrowded habitats began when concerned authorities took small groups of koalas to islands in the hope of protecting them. Safe from the fur hunters, but unable to escape their island homes, these koalas increased in number, and in 1923 wildlife authorities in Victoria began translocating animals back to the mainland. Since then approximately 15,000 koalas have been moved to restock remaining habitats in Victoria. Remember, much of Victoria’s original forests have been cleared, and the remaining forests are now almost full of koalas.

The authorities say this is a successful wildlife management story, but we don’t quite see it this way. The government officials who are involved in these translocations are overwhelmed with their management responsibilities and can often see the koalas as pests. They even call them feral, a term used to describe introduced species. This is of grave concern to me. It would be like wildlife officers in the United States seeing the bald eagle as a feral animal. Unthinkable.

The problem is not going to go away and the AKF is constantly thinking of ways to help the government solve these problems long term, but they will not listen.

So, it is time for us to honor the koala (and all our indigenous flora and fauna). It’s time for a National Koala Act. And Koala Habitat Atlas maps to show where viable habitat remains and what needs to be protected. Which reminds me … that’s why I’m in Walgett. See you tomorrow with information on our mapping.