Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Friday, 6 March 2015

Getting the facts right

The misinformation in the media over the last few days has been frustrating to read. I am writing this blog to set the record straight, clarify the need for the actions of late 2013 and early 2014, and answer a few questions about koala management.

Around 75 koalas were relocated from French Island to Cape Otway in the early 1980s. Most of these probably survived because they were hand-picked healthy individuals that were relocated from manna gum woodland to manna gum woodland. In addition to being similar habitat, the Cape Otway manna gum did not have a resident koala population. These are important points to remember!

In manna gum woodlands, koalas become manna gum specialists and their behaviour is different to what is seen elsewhere. Their ranges are small (less than 1/2 hectare), they tolerate other koalas in close proximity, fecundity is almost 100%, and joeys survive to become breeders themselves. This results in population growth and densities that are seen nowhere else. In addition, in places where fire is suppressed (human intervention) there are no natural regulators of population growth.

These koalas seem to tolerate other koalas in close proximity

This koala (joey on belly) struggles to find enough food
In 2008, there were about 450 hectares of manna gum at Cape Otway adjacent to the vast blue gum/grey gum/mountain ash forests of the Great Otway National Park. By September 2013, there were around 200 hectares of manna gum left. Koalas had defoliated and killed trees to the south and numbers had increased in the north due to koala movement from the south and breeding. Trees began to die but most koalas showed no sign of moving. Female koalas abandoned their joeys and all koalas started eating bark, grass and sometimes dirt. 

On a personal note, I dreaded my weekly visits to Cape Otway because each week I would have to pick up yet another carcass of one (sometimes several) of my study animals. The day I picked up 4 and took another emaciated one to a carer to have euthanased was my lowest. I have not seen anything like it in 25 plus years of working in wildlife management. 

There was a smell of rotting koala in the air. Landholders were suffering extreme stress watching both koalas and trees die. 15 of 20 of my radiocollared animals died, most of those before the government finally stepped in and started putting animals out of their misery. 

I applaud the government for making the difficult decision, especially knowing that there could be significant negative media. Had the media of this week happened back then, 686 koalas would have still died, but their suffering would have been for much longer. I felt incredibly sorry for the team that had the difficult task.

It was not a cull. It was euthanasia of irreversibly sick animals. Healthy animals were released, females given a hormone implant. 

It was not done secretly. It was done in a very public place and hundreds, if not thousands of people were there to witness it. Landholders knew. Prior to the euthanasia, I had tried contacting the media. The few times when my call/email was actually returned, it usually was to say something like "we don't want to get in the way of what needs to be done".

Perhaps if the government had taken action sooner we may have avoided having to take such drastic but necessary action. But in 2013 it was too late for hindsight: the problem was there and needed to be addressed. 

This animal was too weak to climb.
I found some leaves for him

So what are the options for dealing with overabundant koalas at Cape Otway? The following are the only ones that are permitted:

1. Relocation to other forests or zoos? In 2008 there would have been between around 4000 koalas in manna gum. In 2013 there were likely more. These koalas are manna gum specialists and there are studies that show that between 90 and 100% of koalas relocated from manna gum to other forest types die. There is no manna gum left in Victoria that doesn't already have a large number of koalas so there is no manna gum to relocate koalas to. Zoos are not interested in taking adult koalas. Adult koalas straight from the wild are difficult to handle and feed and are stressed around people. Zoos only want joeys or young subadults that they can hand-raise and habituate to people.

2. Fertility control? Very expensive and may only have low effectiveness. However, at this point it really is the only option to stop koalas increasing in number again. It may be more effective than first thought. Results from some of my tracking work suggests that high site fidelity means that there is little movement of koalas within some areas. The government would need to commit to a long-term plan though to address issues of koalas moving in from the neighbouring forests of the Great Otway National Park.

3. Plant more trees? The landholders have been doing this for years and have plans to continue.

4. Let 'nature take its course'? Loss of the manna gum ecosystem may be the final outcome despite all our efforts. Personally, I would like to do whatever possible to avoid that. I hope you agree!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Taking a breather

Today, koalas are in the media and I've been forced to take a breather from writing lectures for interviews with radio, newspaper and TV. So what is all the fuss about? After more than a year since the koala population crash and government welfare interventions of late 2013 and February 2014, the media has decided that it is a story worth reporting. It's not often that the media is that slow is it?

My day started at 6am when the bellowing of koala 'Dave' woke me. For those of you who don't know, Dave is my ringtone on my mobile. It is not pleasant to be woken by a koala bellowing in your ear! The caller was 3AW radio wanting to talk about the 'secret cull of koalas at Cape Otway'. Apparently 'The Australian' newspaper had written an article titled that and discussing the government's program to euthanase starving koalas in 2013/14. I suppose government conspiracies and cover-ups get people's attention because I have since spent my day in interviews and taking phone calls to set up interviews.

My only hope is that this media interest will result in a positive outcome for long-term management of koalas and their habitats at Cape Otway. The problem has not gone away and our November and February counts suggest that koala numbers are beginning to increase again in areas where manna gum survived the 2013 events. Without management, there will be another population crash. I definitely do not want to witness something like that again.

Here is the opening of The Australian article that triggered chaos today:

"ALMOST 700 koalas have been secretly killed by lethal injection near Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and thousands more are in danger of starvation due to an ongoing crisis caused by overpopulation in one of the nation’s key habitats. The Australian can ­reveal that wildlife officials conducted three euthanasia operations in 2013 and 2014 to kill 686 koalas, in what was a covert campaign to avoid any backlash from green groups and the community."

Despite the title and opening sentences, they at least got some of the story right:

"Deakin University koala expert Desley Whisson was part of the team that dealt with the problem a year ago and warned that the problem would continue. Dr Whisson said the density of koalas on the cape was potentially the greatest in Australia and that some of the ­animals were in such poor health that euthanasia was the only ­option.

“It was a blessing when the vets came,’’ she said. As well as invading the Bimbi Park campground, the koalas stripped stands of manna gums, virtually wiping out the trees and making it difficult for the 8000-strong group to find food. Only the fittest specimens were able to survive, leaving the oldest and, in some cases, smallest koalas to starve. Dr Whisson said the reduction in numbers had nothing to do with thinning out the population and was all about dealing humanely with sick koalas."