Flora & Fauna Guarantee Act 1988
National Parks & Wildlife Act 1972
1 In the South-east Queensland Biogeographic Region it is considered 'vulnerable'.
1 In the South-east Queensland Biogeographic Region it is considered 'vulnerable'.
Whenever a species' status is being discussed, the invariable question is, 'How many animals are left?' In the koala's case, this is not an easy question to answer, as there is considerable disagreement regarding koala numbers throughout the animal's distribution. In the early 1930s, estimates suggested there were less than 10 000 koalas in Queensland, only hundreds in New South Wales, less than 1000 in Victoria and the animal was extinct in South Australia.36 More recently, in 1995, the AKF proposed a total number of between 45 000 and 80 000 koalas in Australia, with 25 000 to 50 000 in Queensland, 10 000 to 15 000 in New South Wales, and 10 000 to 15 000 in Victoria and South Australia combined.37 In 2006, the AKF revised their estimate of the national koala population to 100 000.38
These estimates are in sharp contrast with other national 'guesstimates' in the range of400 000 or more. The Queensland Government's Nature Conservation (Koala) Conservation Plan of 2006 suggests there are between 100 000 and 300 000 koalas in the state.39 One estimate puts the koala population in the state's Mulga Lands Bioregion alone at 63 000 (± 18 000). This is significant in that this area is at the margin of the species' range, has poor-quality soils and only a patchy occurrence of koalas.40 Indeed, if this figure is correct there could be many more than 300 000 koalas in Queensland, much of which offers more desirable habitat.41 In New South Wales, the koala is thought to have disappeared from up to 75 per cent of its historic range, with some studies estimating populations of only 1000 to 10 000 animals.42 This figure is almost certainly an underestimate, as another study suggests there are at least 15 000 koalas in the Pilliga forests of northern New South Wales.43 There have also been estimates of 75 000 to 130 000 koalas living in the Strathbogie Ranges in central Victoria.44 To their credit the AKF recognised recently that the lack of data on the number of koalas in the wild was confusing the issue, and have noted that 'figures range from 100 000 animals to several million'.45 Perhaps the only thing that is clear from these estimates is that they vary wildly and depend greatly on which side of the debate the proponent sits on.
One reason why there is so much variation in koala population estimates is that there are no nationally recognised standards for assessing either koala numbers or distribution, and the techniques used are selected to suit the individual projects. Researchers' inability to agree on the size of the national population led Alistair Melzer and his colleagues to suggest this was creating a public lack of confidence in figures that did not have a scientific basis.46 Roger Martin and Kathrine Handasyde sum up the feeling among koala scientists when they suggest that the population size of a widely-distributed and relatively cryptic species such as the koala, which occurs in low densities over large areas, can only ever be 'guesstimated' and all figures should be treated with scepticism.47 Having said that, Ben Sullivan's study in the Queensland Mulga Lands Bioregion produced a reasonably rigorous estimate of the koala population and it should be possible to repeat this kind of survey elsewhere in the koala's range.
Are the overall numbers really that important, though? Perhaps the emphasis should be on changes in the koala's distribution, such as contraction, and detailed examination of individual populations to give a sharp local picture.48 These 'snapshots' can then be pieced together to give a more accurate nationwide image.
In the previous chapter we looked at the primary threats facing the koala, ranging from habitat loss and fragmentation to dog attacks and road kills. In recognition of these, the 1998 National Koala Conservation Strategy proposed six primary management issues necessary to ensure the koala's future:
• To conserve koalas in their existing habitat.
• To rehabilitate and restore koala habitat and populations.
• To develop a better understanding of the conservation biology of koalas.
• To ensure that the community has access to factual information about the distribution, conservation and management of koalas at a national, state and local scale.
• To manage captive, sick or injured koalas and orphaned koalas to ensure consistent and high standards of care.
• To manage overbrowsing to effectively prevent both koala starvation and ecosystem damage in discrete patches of habitat.49
Implementing these management strategies is by no means easy, as it involves various groups with different aims and approaches. In one corner are the scientists who are often not the best at selling their ideas to the public. The politicians have to consider the broader community expectations, even though these may not agree with the most pragmatic approach. Finally, there are the animal interest groups, who often consider the issue on a more emotional level, and who are often very effective at selling their side of the story to the public.
The single biggest issue facing the koala today is the ongoing loss of habitat. How can habitat loss be managed and still take into account the interests of the farming community? In 2003, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists proposed a new model for landscape conservation to the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, a model which should be applicable to other states. Their model recommended:
• strengthening and simplifying native vegetation regulation, ending the broadscale clearing of remnant vegetation and protecting regrowth;
• setting environmental standards and clarifying responsibilities for native vegetation management which will, over time, create healthy rivers and catchments;
• using property management plans to provide investment security, management flexibility and financial support for farmers;
• providing significant levels of public funding to farmers to help meet new environmental standards and support on-ground conservation; and
• re-structuring institutions by improving scientific input into policy setting, improving information systems and regional administration.50
Under the Wentworth Group's model, more money will be directed to farmers to fence river banks and plant trees, and less to report writing and the bureaucratic process.
Potentially properties over a certain area could aim to achieve 20—30 per cent natural vegetation cover. Local councils and state government departments could use modern management tools such as computer-based mapping to ensure habitat fragments on adjacent properties are linked. These protected areas of natural vegetation would be centred on steeper terrain, drainage channels and waterways where native vegetation should be retained either side to help reduce erosion. Apart from providing sustainable habitat for native wildlife such as koalas, the greater vegetation cover will reduce the soil erosion and salinisation that are major issues facing farmers throughout Australia. This process could be supplemented by regional surveys of koala distribution aimed at identifying key koala habitats.51
It is to be hoped that the drastic broadscale clearing in Queensland is now coming to an end. The Queensland Labor Government promised to end broadscale clearing in that state by the end of 2006 and despite the last-minute rush of clearance applications this appears to be being implemented. That government also introduced to the Parliament laws designed to protect up to 20 million hectares of mature native bushland from the bulldozers and promised to provide AU$150 million to help landholders adjust to the changes. This is arguably the most significant single environmental decision in the history of Queensland and, indeed, Australia.52
The issue of overpopulation on islands and in isolated mainland habitats is perhaps the most controversial of all. As we have seen, the management options for such populations have caused considerable debate. In April 1998, one of Australia's leading koala experts, Roger Martin, declared that we needed to be 'cruel to be kind' when it came to starving koalas and that farmers should be allowed to shoot the suffering animals to put them out of their misery. Martin proposed that koalas should be culled on Snake Island, parts of French Island, Sandy Point, Western Port and Tower Hill, stating that 'political people have to seriously engage with this problem. They just can't keep ignoring it . . . Governments don't want to deal with it because there are no votes in killing koalas'. Martin also said that costly relocation programmes would not save the animals, because there was not enough suitable habitat left. The evidence of dead koalas hanging from branches and other carcasses scattered on a dirt track at Framlingham Forest, north of Warrnambool in western Victoria, could not persuade government officials to act. According to Martin, 'five hundred hectares of our remnant forest had been nuked by the most charismatic animal in the world' and 'three thousand koalas that died of starvation could have been culled humanely'.53
In response, a senior government environment wildlife policy officer acknowledged that koalas had caused 'dreadful damage' at Framlingham, because they 'literally eat just about every leaf off the tree'. The government spokesperson also said that the state's translocation programme had been 'extraordinarily successful' and koalas now lived in 'virtually all habitat available in Victoria'. Unfortunately this only highlighted the fact that now there is virtually no available habitat into which koalas can be translocated in the future. It was acknowledged that 'translocation is not a long-term answer', which adds to the management problems because culling has been ruled out by all of Australia's conservation ministers as not an option. When questioned, the President of the RSPCA did not accept that Victoria's koalas were starving to death and said that although the RSPCA is not opposed to a managed cull of sick or aged animals, the society said it rejects 'widespread slaughter'.54
The Framlingham story is a classic example of the argument that translocation can create more problems than it solves. Framlingham Forest is an isolated fragment of 1200 hectares of native forest bordering the Hopkins River in western Victoria. A koala population was established there in 1970 when 37 animals were translocated from French Island. Due to the excellent habitat conditions the population expanded rapidly, reaching an estimated 5500 by 1990. People began to notice how abundant the koalas had become and many voiced their concern about the animals' impact on their food trees. By 1993, another doubling in population meant that numbers were now estimated to be over 10 000. Despite urgent requests by naturalists and local farmers, no action was taken. During the summer of 1994/1995 many trees were seen to be dead or dying but still nothing was done, although by now large numbers of koalas were starving to death. By 1998 almost all the manna gums growing beside the Hopkins River were either dead or very close to it, whereas once there had been a thriving forest in excess of 200 hectares. In April 1998 a translocation programme finally began. By August the programme had moved just over 1000 animals and came to an end. A sad irony is that the Framlingham story occurred on Aboriginal land, whose original inhabitants would have controlled koala numbers through hunting, aided vegetation regrowth through regular burn-offs and never allowed such a devastating overpopulation to occur.55
The AKF has always stated their categorical opposition to the culling of koalas. Other active population management options such as sterilisation and translocation are criticised as
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