Dead trees as a result of overbrowsing by koalas at Sandy Point, Western Port, Victoria. (Photo: Kath Handasyde, taken from Martin & Handasyde (1999))
'rhetoric'. The AKF believe that the translocation process is 'ill conceived and disregards the koala's social structure, habitat viability and dignity, so the animals are doomed from the beginning'.56 The AKF has called translocation the 'soft cull' as they said they were aware of evidence of many animals suffering and dying from the translocation and fertility control process. As we have seen earlier, despite these concerns, most translocation programmes have been extremely successful.
The most viable future direction for managing overpopulation appears to be fertility control using hormone implants, as this will allow long-term reproductive management. The tools for such a policy are still being developed and different hormone implants trialled, with promising results. Zero per cent fertility has been recorded using levonorgestrel, and 5 per cent for oestradiol, with the one available study showing no adverse side effects.57 Another study has shown GnRH Superagonist Deslorelin to be an effective contraceptive, remaining effective for over 12 months.58 Ultimately, the cost of implementing these hormone implant programmes will need to be met by the relevant state government.
Overall koala population management policies may come from the federal and state governments, but there are many things that local councils and those who live in regions populated by koalas can do to minimise the number of koalas killed or injured by human agencies. Worried about the high road toll of koalas throughout the Koala Coast, the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, together with the Queensland Department of Roads and Redland Shire, trialled the effectiveness of differential speed zones over a five-year period from 1995 to 1999. As part of the trial road signs were erected and a speed limit designated—60 kilometres per hour from 7:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. from August to December, and 80 kilometres per hour at other times. During this period, 1407 koalas were hit, most of which were young males and the study suggested
there had been no significant reduction in vehicle speed. If the mounting koala death toll on Queensland's roads is to be addressed, there would appear to be a real need for a public education programme on the dangers posed to koalas by speeding cars.59
Queenslanders might be reluctant to slow their vehicle speed, but public concern about koalas has contributed directly to the downfall of two Queensland state governments. We saw in an earlier chapter that Acting Premier Smith's failure to stop the 1927 open season may have led to his government's defeat in the next state election. More recently, in 1995, the Wayne Goss Labor Government allowed the resumption of habitat clearing in order to widen one of south-east Queensland's major roadways, which became known as the 'koala expressway'. This drove the Queensland Greens to preference against the Labor
Government and the backlash from swing voters at the polling booths in marginal seats known as 'the koala seats' again appears to have led to the government's defeat.60 The reluctance of both the South Australian and Victorian governments to cull koalas suggests they are not prepared to undertake any action that might cause public opinion to rise against them.
State governments face many issues in establishing viable koala population management strategies. That is not to say, however, that only our elected representatives can address these problems. Robyn Jones, a Wildlife Ranger from the Daisy Hill Koala Centre, highlights a number of dangers that could be avoided: using cement barriers on major roads; the possibility of animals drowning in unfenced swimming pools; and the dangers of fishing and sporting nets.61 There are many things that local councils and individuals can do to alleviate the plight of Australia's koalas. Landowners in koala habitat can both plant more trees and fence off treed areas from livestock. Property owners in koala regions can also fence off their swimming pools and, if they have dogs that are not working animals, choose breeds that weigh less than ten kilograms.
Many local councils have recognised the importance of protecting koala habitat on private land, not only for the long-term preservation of the koala, but also to maintain landscape biodiversity. Dan Lunney and his team from the New South Wales Department of Environment and Climate Change have carried out key studies into the integration of the often conflicting aspects of land management and koala conservation. One particularly effective survey was undertaken in conjunction with the Coffs Harbour City Council and resulted in the Coffs Harbour City koala plan ofmanagement.62 The plan's central concern was the 'death by a thousand cuts' of remnant vegetation on the region's private and council-owned land and the final plan included a detailed koala habitat planning map that identified core koala habitat. Once identified, koala habitat could be protected through land-use zoning and development controls. The plan addressed the issue of 'black spots' on the region's roads (where high numbers of koala deaths were known to occur) by erecting road signs and exclusion fencing, enforcing speed restrictions and installing better lighting. Dog attacks were targeted by the stricter enforcement of the Companion Animals Act 1998. The plan also laid down guidelines for fire management and the more efficient rehabilitation of sick, injured or orphaned koalas.
The koala plan's key component was the New South Wales Government's State Environmental Planning Policy No. 44— Koaa Habitat Protection (SEPP 44). This significant policy came under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 and commenced in February 1995. It is the first species-specific planning policy introduced by any state government in Australia. It aims to encourage the conservation and management of natural vegetation areas that provide habitat for koalas in order to maintain permanent free-living population over their present range. Local councils cannot approve development in an area affected by the policy without an investigation of core koala habitat.
It is important to point out that despite the legislative framework in place the development of the groundbreaking Coffs Harbour City koala plan of management was a long and difficult process that took ten years to complete.63 Some of the obstacles faced by the plan's proponents included the negative impact of land-use restrictions, loss of income for affected landowners and conflicts with some of the local council's other objectives. The local council asked for an economic assessment of the plan's probable impact on the area, which found that protecting Coffs Harbour's koalas would result in major economic benefits, mainly via the important tourist industry. The then mayor and several councillors claimed the plan's restrictions would bring a halt to all development in the region and endeavoured to stop or at least stall the plan's release. The stalling reached such an extent that the entire plan seemed doomed, until an extraordinary, and unrelated, public scandal forced the resignation of two dissenting councillors. The subsequent council elections resulted in the election of a largely new council and in November 1999 the once-doomed plan was approved unopposed. In 2000, the Coffs Harbour City Council won the 'Living Cities Award for Urban Environmental Leadership', with the koala plan being cited as one of the council's initiatives that gained it this national award.
The Coffs Harbour experience shows that the road to conservation is often very difficult, and that many years of hard work, extensive public consultation and the best available scientific knowledge can count for nothing in the face of bureaucratic squabbles by only a handful of people. The plan eventually developed for the Coffs Harbour City Council, with the assistance of the council planner, and the then New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service (now the Department of Environment and Climate Change) should serve as a model for other councils—not only for the conservation of koalas but for biodiversity in general. It is to be hoped that in the future such efforts can come to fruition considerably faster, without being obstructed by personal prejudices.
In addition to conserving and re-establishing native vegetation on private properties, the community has another important role in the conservation of koalas and other fauna. They can provide researchers with valuable information on their distribution. Questionnaires have been used successfully in identifying koala distribution throughout Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.64 These studies draw on valuable local knowledge of the fauna of particular areas and also reveal general community concern over the decline in native fauna, including the koala.
Throughout this journey with the koala we have examined its origins and evolution, its role in the culture of the Australian Aborigines, and explored its ecology and behaviour. We have also seen it's rise to become both an Australian and international icon, which has been used in almost all forms of media and advertising, and resulted in it being in demand by zoos not only in Australia but also throughout the world.
Despite the popularity of the koalas that we see today we cannot afford to lose a sense of the history of this species since European settlement. This saga has seen koala numbers decrease dramatically as their forests were cleared, disease spread and they were hunted to near extinction throughout much of their range. The debt of this history is still being paid today as we endeavour to manage the remaining koala populations both on the mainland and on islands throughout eastern and southern Australia. Today, the koala is under continued threat from loss of habitat, disease, inbreeding, natural disasters such as drought and fire, dog attacks and road kills.
The role of this tome is not to be controversial but rather discuss the controversy that often surrounds the koala. Therefore there has been an attempt to highlight the enormous amount of debate that has occurred over the conservation status of the koala and how it should be best managed. Different sides of these debates have been represented by governments, animal lobby groups and scientists who often pull in different directions. Regardless of this debate it is important to recognise that the koala's distribution has contracted in many areas, and that even in those areas where they are common they often suffer from other significant management problems such as over population and inbreeding. Therefore there is an urgent need to recognise that the remaining habitat of the koala needs to be conserved. A key outcome of the conservation of forests occupied by koalas is that it also helps protect the numerous other plants and animals that are threatened or could become so if the clearing of Australia's forests continues. Therefore the koala's status as a national icon has made it a figurehead of the Australian conservation debate.
To aid in the management of the koala there has been a legion of researchers discovering various aspects of the biology and management requirements. Importantly there is an increasing need to undertake applied research that will assist governments, councils and private landowners to conserve the koala. With this knowledge however these groups have a responsibility to foster a spirit of cooperation to conserve and re-establish koala habitats on both private and public land.
It is hoped that in putting these words together it will help to highlight the variety of complex issues associated with the koala that are not normally discussed and highlight its important role in Australian culture. Optimism is also held for management of the species and that those representing the different sides of the debate can better accept the conclusions reached as a result of well-developed science. Ultimately let us aspire to the conservation of the forests of Australia for future generations of Australians. No doubt the animal with the spoon-shaped nose will have an important role to play in this endeavour.
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