Our cuddliest creature is at the centre of a fierce dispute, which questions the perception of dwindling numbers and conventional conservation wisdom.
Our koalas are one of the group of well-known marsupials, unique to Australia. A distinctive characteristic common to these species is that most of the young are carried in a pouch. Koalas are not “bears”. However, being the subjects of current fierce dispute is almost too much for them to bear! According to a respected forester, Vic Jursikis who authored a research paper published last week in Wild Life Research – a peer-reviewed, CSIRO journal – the dispute is akin to “the great koala scam”. He says ignorance about koalas and poor management of our native forests have led to a situation where the decline of koala populations from unsustainable and unnaturally high levels is misinterpreted as a crisis.
Habitat loss is commonly labelled as the greatest threat to koalas. Koalas are listed as vulnerable species in Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT.
In a curious twist, it may not be the lack of forest but the quality of native forest management that enhances low-density koala populations. The management should include frequent, mild burning of native forests because koalas need young eucalypt leaves for nourishment. It’s this situation which has seen the problem of koala irruptions – large, fast-breeding colonies – spring up in forests regrown after intensive logging or in dying forests where stressed trees continually produce new foliage. The ideal is for koalas to live in sparse numbers, roaming a large area of healthy eucalypt forest. A healthy koala is not photographed by tourists at the Noosa National Park or Victoria’s Great Ocean Road – he’s the one you never see.
Although koalas can eat 70 species of eucalypts, they need young leaves for nourishment.
Due to vulnerability, the Queensland, New South Wales and ACT koala populations are listed as “vulnerable” under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999, in order to protect the species and to give it the best chance of survival. Does this mean I can’t cut down a tree on my property in Queensland or New South Wales? Answer: No. The federal listing means that minor activities, at the householder level, such as cutting down a single tree, doesn’t require Federal approval. You will only require Federal approval if your proposal is likely to result in a significant impact on a protected koala population. There are also specific State Government requirements in place in relation to projects proposed within mapped koala habitat.
Why does the control apply to Queensland and New South Wales but not to Victoria? The health and size of koala populations differ significantly across Australia. For example, koala populations in parts of Victoria are considered too large to be sustainable for their habitat and need to be managed through supervised translocation and sterilisation. For this reason, it has not been necessary to list all koala populations as nationally threatened.
In Queensland, new laws started on 1 September, 2017 called the Nature Conservation (Koala) Conservation Plan 2017. This law requires any clearing in certain areas to be undertaken sequentially, and incorporates a map for Queensland outlining the boundary of each of the Koala Districts.
These current laws and their application remain the subject of debate about their effectiveness in the protection of koalas.
At least it’s more bearable than past Government laws. September this year marked 90 years since the Queensland Government approved the killing of koalas for their skins. Similar laws were introduced in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria yet were ceased in the early 1900s. But, in Queensland, koalas were almost driven to extinction with the Queensland Government allowing the open season on the marsupials to continue until 1927. Some 10,000 hunting licences were issued with the koala pelts popular in coats, glove