Friday, 15 Sep 2000

WALGETT, New South Wales

I’m here with our fieldwork team, which has been gathering data to compile a Koala Habitat Atlas for the Walgett Shire (like a county) in central western New South Wales. Walgett is about a 12-hour drive southwest of Brisbane — it’s a vast area of over 3,600,000 acres with highly fragmented habitat. It’s great to be in the “Aussie outback” and we’ve seen kangaroos, emus, parrots, sheep, clear skies, opal mines, koala poos, and dusty roads. We’ve got a koala keeper from the San Diego Zoo helping us and I think he’s had a great time.

We saw a flock of red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead in pairs, which was an incredible experience. There must have been 1,000 of them and it’s good to see them, good to know they’re still here. All cockatoos, in fact most Australian wildlife, need hollows to have their babies. Hollows in eucalyptus trees can often take 100 years to develop.

Former koala habitat cleared for agriculture.

There is such a large contrast between seeing all this wildlife and seeing the devastation of cleared bushland. In some places there is a lot of vegetation, but in others the land is cleared as far as the eye can see.

We’ve also found contrasting views in the people we have met. Some are really friendly and interested to hear what we’re doing — they want our data to help them manage their land. But others are distrustful of us and defensive of what is on their land. There is a chasm between the city and the bush in Australia, especially now that land-clearing is a hot issue. People in the country don’t want city folk telling them what to do with their land. They’re feeling uncertain about the future, both in terms of their ability to survive economically and because there is international pressure to curb land-clearing and they believe that impinges upon their “rights” as property owners.

And koalas and their conservation are entwined in all this.

The koala is affected by urbanization. It is affected by agriculture. It is affected by extraction industries like sand mining and forestry. The logging of native forest can affect koala populations, but perhaps of more concern long term is the converting of native forests to plantations. Koalas can’t survive in monoculture plantations. Nor can many other species.

But it’s not always the farmers or loggers or miners who are to blame. We are all consumers and the demand for products like paper and food is causing forests in this country to be cut down at a rapid rate. So what to do?

Who could say no to these faces?

I think that the koala is a powerful symbol for conservation and a great teacher. It has the potential to teach us how to better manage our land and our forests, to teach about recycling, sustainability, and many other things. It is far easier to explain to people why they shouldn’t cut down trees if they think that something as cute as a koala could be affected.

The landholders in Walgett are ordinary human beings like you and me. A lot of their traditional farming practices are unsustainable, but it takes many years for people to change and do things in a new way. These farmers may be under pressure because market forces are squeezing them to produce their milk or their meat or their grain for less and less money so that people in the city can buy cheap products.

This is why we are mapping, to try and fit both farming and koalas together sustainably. It is not easy. Until we have information that identifies our biodiversity, including koala habitat, it will continue to be eroded by continual human pressures. This is not new, everyone knows it, but I am always so frustrated that mapping is the last thing that is done.

We need a bird’s eye view of where koala habitats are at a scale that people can use to plan for the future, be it for housing or cattle farming. We need to know how much habitat is enough to sustain koalas, while taking into account the land-use requirements. We need maps across the entire country like the ones we are producing for Walgett. Producing them costs time and money, but it’s an issue of national significance and worthy of the government’s support.

Our government doesn’t have any maps that in my opinion are good enough to protect our biodiversity. They would argue that mapping at the scale necessary is too expensive. But with the koalas contributing an estimated $1.1 billion per year to Australia’s economy through foreign tourism revenue (and that figure is expected to rise to $2.5 billion this Olympic year), how can they say it is not cost effective? It would only cost a fraction of that to map the entire range of the country’s koala habitat.

I used to think that the Australian Koala Foundation could map the whole koala habitat on the east coast of Australia. Currently we have mapped about 8 million acres. We still have 2.5 million square miles (yes, that’s square miles, not acres) to go, so we are looking for cheaper and more cost-effective ways of mapping. We have even used remote sensing to identify single eucalyptus trees. Over time we will convince the Australian government to map our way. It is too big a job for a small organization like ours, but we will show them how to do it.

If the koala cannot get our government to act responsibly, then no other animal will be able to do so. The koala is loved by millions around the world. It doesn’t hurt people. It doesn’t eat crops. It is a powerful symbol for conservation that can move people to action.

Wacky Wazza.

This is my last day writing to you, so before I go I want to paint a picture of Australia for you. I want you to know that it is a wonderful and exotic place. Please come and visit us — and meet blokes (guys) like Wazza.

Wazza contacted the AKF a couple of years ago wanting us to help him save a platypus habitat near Mackay on the central Queensland coast, because he was sure that the plight of the koala was linked in some way. Wazza was incredibly disturbed by the fact that a new dam was going to be built for sugar cane farming and that it would affect his beloved platypus habitat, as it had already destroyed koala habitat in the past.

Wazza’s house at Finch Hatton Gorge.

For years, I kept saying,”No Wazza, I cannot come. I have enough problems with koalas, I cannot add platypus.” But eventually I did go, and I found that Wazza was a real character, living an idyllic life at the romantically named Finch Hatton Gorge. (Yes, it was named after that guy in Out of Africa.) Although Wazza couldn’t show me any koalas, what my trip did give me was further knowledge about poor land use, poor water use, and the fact that there is no overview of what’s happening to those precious resources.

Mackay is a sugar growing town and almost the entire surrounding fertile Pioneer valley has been cleared to the water’s edge for sugar cane. The river flats would once have been wonderful koala habitat, but now there is barely a tree left standing, and as a result there is erosion of topsoil which is even affecting the Great Barrier Reef . When the tropical summer rains come, the topsoil from the cane farms washes down the river to the sea and settles on the coral, affecting the marine environment.

Walker walking.

Wazza, like many other great Australians, has helped teach me about the complexities of managing land. When you look at the photo of Wazza, picture him living in a bush camp, cooking over an open fire, toast and tea for breakfast, a goanna (big lizard) hanging over his tin roof that “smiles” at him in the morning, and most importantly a wonderful bird called Walker. He is so named because he cannot fly (he has beak and feather disease). He’s a featherless sulphur crested cockatoo. Some would say he looks like a small chicken with no feathers, but I would not say that in front of him. Wazza and Walker live in harmony in the bush. Walker can whistle all of Tequila Sunrise, but he expects the visitor to sing the final Tequila!

Wazza and Walker are always present in my mind. They represent everything Australian to me, although most of us urban dwellers would never have the chance to live as they do.

I will do everything I can while head of
the AKF to protect areas like the Finch Hatton Gorge forever. No amount of money made from selling sugar could ever make up for the tragic loss of the habitats in that Gorge.

I have loved writing to you and I thank you for wanting to know more about Australia. Tequila!

(If you’d like to get in touch with us at the Australian Koala Foundation, please email