The shooting of our harmless and lovable native bear is nothing less than barbarous. His case is extremely different from that of other furred animals. No one has ever accused him of spoiling the farmer's wheat, eating the squatters' grass, or even spreading the prickly pear. There is not a social vice that can be put down to his account. In addition, he is comparatively defenceless. He affords no sport to the gunman . . . he has been almost blotted out already from some areas, in days when fauna and flora were held with such little regard that the settler's first instinct was to shoot every strange animal and to sink his axe into every unfamiliar tree . . .
Like many of our indigenous animals, the koala was hunted as a matter of routine by the early settlers and explorers. For centuries it had been hunted by the land's original inhabitants, but as European ailments decimated the numbers of Aborigines in eastern Australia koala numbers increased almost unchecked. By the last years of the 19th century they had reached extraordinary numbers, based on the quantity of skins that would be sold over the next 30 years.2 The koala's dense, waterproof pelt made it a valuable commodity on the international fur market, and demand increased accordingly.3 By the beginning of the 1930s, the koala had been hunted so indiscriminately that it had disappeared from many of its natural habitats. In this chapter we explore early hunting techniques, the development of the fur industry, the mass slaughter that brought the koala to the brink of extinction and, finally, the eleventh-hour move to protect what had become an endangered species.
It appears that as the numbers of Australia's Aborigines decreased over the second half of the 19 th century, so the numbers of koalas rose. As a result of the bourgeoning pelt trade koala pelts began to be exported some time in the mid- to late 1870s.4 The density of koala fur made it a very effective insulator against the cold winters of Canada, the United States and Europe. It was not only thick, warm and durable, but it was also waterproof, making it ideal for the interior lining of coats.5 In the early 1930s, Fred Lewis, chief inspector of Fisheries and Sport, recalled that 'the fur is thick and warm, and, I am told, is in great demand by men living in northern Canada and Europe, who claim that it is the only fur which will keep out the cold, wintry blasts of these northern climes'.6
By the early 1890s, the flourishing fur industry was being fed with the skins of thousands of koalas killed annually in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. In 1894, the English naturalist and geologist Richard Lydekker recorded that:
The koala must be an abundant animal, since from 10,000 to 30,000 skins are annually imported into London, while in 1889 the enormous total of 300,000 was reached. The value of these skins ranges, according to Poland, from five pence to a shilling each; and they are mainly used in the manufacture of those articles for which cheap and durable fur is required.7
Various techniques were used to hunt koalas, but poisoning and trapping were preferred to shooting as they caused less damage to the pelts.8 Legislation forbade their use in hunting, but poisons such as cyanide of potassium were easily obtainable and used freely.9 Poisoning was effective, but also indiscriminate and killed thousands of animals whose skins were never placed upon the market, such as young koalas. Humphrey McQueen offers a chilling insight into the hunting techniques of native animals in his Social Sketches of Australia.
If [killed] by cyanide, a jam tin of water with this in solution, is placed at the foot of a tree or a nearby hollow log, and the morning shows the agony passed through before death gave the animal release. If [killed] by shooting the acetylene search light brought to view the 'possum' or bear crouched peering with light lit, frightened eyes from some outstretched branch or forked limb, a crash! a horrible thud, and there lies one more to be skinned and its white body slung to the dogs or ants. If snared, trappers place slanting saplings against the likely tree, and arrange on each the deadly wire noose through which the 'possum' will thrust his head coming down. In the early morning, before dingoes and crows have disturbed the carcasses the trapper does his rounds to collect the strangled 'possums' and bears. All 'joeys' are torn from the pouches, the young ones being thrown to the dogs, and the more developed ones sometimes, and if alive are liberated for future gain.10
It must be noted that many researchers view the accounts of koalas being snared or poisoned with some scepticism. Despite being anecdotal, none of the existing accounts are first-hand, and many come from opponents of the fur trade. No-one can deny that trappers used snares and poison, but both methods seem to have been directed against brushtail possums. For one thing, the most common form of poisoned bait was a flour-and-water paste, which would have had no appeal to koalas.11 It must be assumed, then, that the most koalas fell to hunters' guns; an assumption borne out by a closer examination of Humphrey McQueen's account. At the time McQueen was writing, 'possum' referred to the common brushtail possum and other possum species, but not the koala. In addition to the unlikely success of poison, they were unlikely to fall victim to snares as, unlike the brushtail possums, koalas come down the tree bottom first.
While travelling around Australia in 1899, German biologist Richard Semon shot a number of koalas.
My shot wounded the creature. In falling it succeeded in clutching a strong bough, and so supported itself. Thus it hung for some time suspended by its fore-paws, and trying in vain to draw up its hind-paws and so swing itself on to the branch. As I expected it to fall any moment, I did not fire another shot. On Frank's telling me, however, how tough and strong these animals are, and that they are able to cling for hours to a tree in this wounded state, I aimed once more, and struck its head and left forefoot. Still it clung to the tree for a while with its right fore-paw, then fell down heavily, and died a few minutes later. It was a strong fully-developed female, carrying a half-grown young one on its back. The poor little thing clung to its dead mother with its sharp paws, and would not be torn away. I thought of taking it into my camp and rearing it, but the next morning it had left its mother's cold body and disappeared.12
We do not know the grounds on which Arthur Lucas and Dudley Le Souef based their 1909 observation that the koala's fur 'is usually redolent of eucalyptus, and fortunately is not valued in the market'. They were more accurate when they described the koala as 'singularly inoffensive, and anyone who would wantonly shoot a Bear in cold blood would probably feel at home with a gun among a flock of sheep'.13
The koala's fur was so valued in the market that by the end of the 19th century, hunting had reached such levels that the state governments began to place restrictions on the pursuit of 'native game'. For example, in 1898 the Victorian Government issued a proclamation headed, 'Native bears to be deemed native game and protected', but its only effect was to force Victorian hunters to sell their skins across the state's borders. Another popular scam was to label koala skins as 'wombat', before shipping them out of Victoria.14 Despite the Victorian Government's proclamation, records confirm that in one year alone, over 2000 skins were taken from Wilson's Promontory in the state's south-east.15 In New South Wales, 600 000 koala skins were purchased in 1902.16 The following year the koala was given limited protection under the Native Animals Protection Act 1903, but the Act carried no prohibition on the koala fur trade, and 57 933 skins are recorded as being exported from Sydney in 1908.17 In South Australia, the koala was protected under the Animal Protection Act 1912, but numbers had already dropped to critically low levels and by 1924 the animal appears to have all but disappeared from the state.18
In 1934, Fred Lewis, chief inspector of Fisheries and Sport in Victoria, recalled that:
From inquiries I have made among well informed people, it appears that the favourite 'sport' of the young men and boys of thirty or forty years ago was shooting Native Bears. Their ideas of 'sport' must have been very primitive, because no more inoffensive and easily-destroyed animal than the koala lives in any part of the world.19
By the early 1900s, the demand and prices offered for koala pelts were increasing, but koala numbers in the southern states of Australia had decreased to such an extent that Queensland became the main focus for hunters.20 So many animals were slaughtered that the Department of Agriculture and Stock's Annual Report for 1905—06 suggested that the koala is 'threatened with extermination owing to the value of its pelt', and recorded that during the previous financial year approximately 340 000 koala skins had been offered for sale in Queensland. The report warned that the koala 'could not sustain a continuance of such destruction for many years in succession' and suggested that a closed season should be included within the legislation.21 This concern was acted upon in November 1906, with the enactment of the Native Animals Protection Act 1906.
Some species—tree kangaroos, wombats, platypus, echidnas and gliding possums—were 'absolutely' protected, but the legislation allowed open seasons for other possums and koalas. There was a general closed season from 1 November to 30 April each year, but the real harm would be done during the six random open seasons, ranging from one to six months' duration, which were allowed between 1906 and 1927.22
There are accurate records of the number of koala pelts sold in Queensland for only the last two open seasons, but estimates for the preceding years make disturbing reading. It is thought that 500 000 skins were sold in both 1903 and 1905, with a further 450 000 in 1906. In 1919, 10 000 licensed trappers traded over 1 000 000 skins during a six-month period.23 In 1924, Frederic Wood Jones claimed that in 1920 and 1921, in which no open seasons were declared, 205 679 koalas were killed for the fur market. Professor Jones, a key figure behind the early Australian conservation movement, warned that:
The complete extermination of the Native Bear would be a disgrace to Australia . . . It should be rigidly protected and preserved where it still exists, and every effort should be made to extend its range, and to re-establish it in those areas from which it has already been exterminated . . . Indeed, one may say, on humanitarian grounds, that not only should the slaughter of the koala for the fur trade be prohibited because the animal is eminently one to protect and not to exterminate, but should be prohibited because, like the slaying of the seals, it is the most brutalizing occupation that a human being could undertake.24
Ellis Troughton suggests that an estimated 2 000 000 koala pelts were exported from Australia in 1924.25 'Official' figures for the number of koalas killed for the overseas fur trade exist, but it is difficult to establish actual numbers because increasing negative public opinion was forcing hunters to market their koala skins as 'wombat', which was regarded as a pest. Koala skins were also disguised as 'opossum', for which there were frequent open seasons, or other marsupials.26 In the interests of fairness, it must be noted that although many koala skins were deliberately mislabelled, especially in interstate markets, as early as 1908 the term 'wombat' had been used by the overseas trade market to describe legally exported koala skins. It's possible that the term was used legitimately to differentiate 'native bears' from true bears and that when early conservationists discovered the practice they came to the (incorrect) conclusion that it was a ruse to market illegal skins.27
Before 1919, public opposition to the koala fur trade was rising, although most protests seem to have been individual rather than orchestrated, perhaps because of the public's preoccupation with the events of the First World War.28 The catalyst for change was the 1919 open season, which caused widespread public outrage, as recorded in the Queensland
Parliamentary Papers: 'public sentiment for the protection of our native birds and animals [was] beginning to realise that a stand must be made to prevent further depletion if we are to preserve the beautiful and useful fauna we possess'.29 It must be admitted that public concern about the koala's possible extinction was aimed as much at preserving the lucrative trade in its skin as at preserving the animal itself. Whatever the reason, however, the day after the open season closed, 1 October 1919, Queensland Minister for Agriculture and Stock W.N. Gillies informed state Parliament that he would be taking action to prevent the extermination of the koala. There would be no koala open seasons for the next eight years.
The 1919 open season also demonstrated that the Native Animals Protection Act 1906was not working. The use of cyanide was rampant and, as a result, in 1921 the Queensland Government passed the Animals and Birds Act 1921, which banned the use of poison, electric torches and acetylene lamps, and set down stiffer penalties for those who broke the law. This legislation also transformed reserves into genuine sanctuaries, which would be patrolled by rangers. In 1924, the Act was amended to ensure all royalties accrued through its implementation would be used to administer its sanctions. Unfortunately, like its predecessors, this legislation was extremely difficult to enforce and relied on the 'hearty cooperation of the professional trapper, who is keenly alive to the danger of the possible extinction of his industry'.30 It also allowed the possibility of further open seasons.
Despite the phenomenal numbers of koalas killed in 1919, by 1924 Queensland was still the only state with large koala populations. Contemporary accounts held that the animal was all but extinct in South Australia, close to extinction in New South Wales, and numbered as few as 500 to 1000 in Victoria (though this was certainly a gross underestimate).31 Koala numbers obviously were decreasing in parts of Queensland, but there is reasonable evidence that numbers were increasing in other parts of the state.32 Regardless, the koala's survival was still to face its ultimate test.
Glenn Fowler's thesis, 'Black August', is an excellent account of the open season of August 1927. Her thesis recalls that when the government's minister for Agriculture and Stock (and, at the time acting premier), William Forgan Smith, announced on 7 July 1927 that the open season on koalas would begin on 1 August 1927, and extend for 31 days, he endeavoured to justify the decision:
It has been strongly represented by trappers and supported by official evidence that native bears are to be found in large numbers in certain areas, due probably to the fact that the open season for trapping this native animal has been closed since 1919, and has only been opened for short intervals on three occasions in the past twenty years.33
In fact, government rangers were divided on the density of koala populations in their respective districts, and those who said that koalas were scarce were ignored. There is also some evidence that those who had no vested interest in, or were opposed to, open seasons, deliberately misrepresented the numbers of animals observed. In 1922, Mr Thomas Foley, a member of the state Parliament, implied that squatters were deliberately misleading government officials about koala numbers because they were opposed to open seasons, and that stock inspectors' estimates (which were based on the information supplied by graziers) were therefore unreliable. The fact is that most reports were supplied by local police forces, and Gordon and Hrdina propose that these reports may be more reliable than others because squatters would have less influence over the police.34 Putting the accuracy or otherwise of reported koala populations to one side, the announcement of the open season attracted widespread condemnation. David Stead, president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, warned that 300 000 animals would be killed. He was ridiculed by many for exaggerating but, as we will see, the actual toll would be much greater than his estimate.35 On 18 July, Queensland's Archbishop Sharp joined the controversy. In an open letter to the Courier newspaper he stated that:
I think that if the Acting Premier realises how very deep an offence the permission to destroy native bears has given a vast number of quiet, peaceable, decent-minded people, the permission would be withdrawn. I write in all seriousness when I say that our feelings ought not to be so wounded.36
Archbishop Sharp also called for 'protests in large numbers, from individuals, and, still better, from groups or meetings or associations of people living in the country (for country dwellers are more aggrieved even than town dwellers)'.37 Not long after this, Archbishop Duhig wrote that the 'overwhelming majority' of Queenslanders opposed the open season 'not for political reasons, but because it was repugnant to all their feelings of kindness and humanity—a far more cogent argument than mere political bias'.38
Whether as a direct result of the archbishops' call to action, or as a spontaneous manifestation of general feeling, the public response over the next two weeks was enormous. The Queensland Government was bombarded with letters, petitions and deputations of protest. Towns held public meetings and newspapers across the state received hundreds of letters, from scientific bodies such as the Royal Society of Queensland, the Queensland Naturalists' Club, the Nature Lovers' League, and various native bird and animal protection associations; from shire councils, city councils, chambers of commerce, local producers' associations and the United Graziers' Association; from progress associations, the Playground Association of Queensland, the Australian Natives Association of Queensland, the Queensland Boy Scouts' Association and the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers'
Imperial League of Australia; from religious organisations such as the Theosophical Order of Service and the Church of England Men's Society of Queensland, and from churches of all denominations; from the Country Women's Association, the Brisbane Women's Club, the Queensland Women's Electoral League and the Queensland branch of the National Council of Women; from state school committees, Sunday schools and schools of art; from the University of Queensland and the Queensland Museum. There was even a petition signed by the inmates of 'The Hospice' in East Brisbane.
The storm of public opinion raged beyond the state borders. Scientific bodies from New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia all lobbied the Queensland ministry. Armidale's Labor Council requested its State Executive to issue a strong protest to Queensland's acting premier. Overseas, the London Times and Boston's Christian Science Monitor denounced the Queensland Government's decision. Some protestors targeted the trappers and shooters, others those who wore koala fur, but most took aim at the acting premier and his fellow Cabinet ministers. By now Acting Premier Smith was under pressure from his own party, as more and more people wrote to their local members of Parliament to protest against the upcoming open season.
Faced with such an avalanche of public protest, why did the acting premier stand firm? It appears that letters requesting the reopening of the koala-hunting season began to arrive at the Department of Agriculture and Stock as early as January 1927.
The primary reason given was the hardship being faced by unemployed rural workers in the country districts, especially after the previous year's drought. Many of the letters suggested that koalas were again numerous and indeed 'exceeding several millions'. Thomas Foley Labor MLA for Leichhardt said that due to the prevalence of disease amongst Queensland's koalas following the recent drought that it would be in its best interest as it would allow the 'thinning out' of an unsustainably large population. These letters came not only from members of the rural working class, but also from the politicians who represented them, in other words from within the acting premier's government.39
During a period of economic depression, increasing unemployment and industrial unrest, the Queensland Government knew that its grassroots rural vote would be critical in winning the next election.40 By providing poor and unemployed rural workers with an income, a koala open season would do away with the need for relief payments and save the state Treasury a considerable amount of money.41
The Queensland Government's concern for its rural workers did not do it any favours with pastoralists and landowners. Before 1925, a trapper's permit superseded all rights of the landowner or a lessee on the area covered by the permit. Only landholders with less than 2560 acres could have their land exempted. Everyone else had to allow trappers and shooters unrestricted access. The 1925 regulations placed various restrictions on trappers, including the allocation of limited permits for specific properties. This meant that only a small number of permitted trappers had right of access to each property.42 These limitations were easy to ignore and difficult to police, and it has to be pointed out that landowners' primary concern was not the plight of the koala, but the damage to stock and property that could be caused by hordes of trappers straying across fields and boundaries.43
In spite of all the protests, licence fees were received from 10 000 trappers and the open season went ahead. It must be assumed that there were many who either could not, or would not, raise the licence fee and who were happy to trap illegally. Koala hunters used all of the three methods described earlier to kill their prey—snares, poison and guns—and it wasn't long before the press began to run horrific stories of the treatment meted out to the koalas. Readers were told of baby koalas trying to obtain nourishment from the skinless bodies of their dead mothers and hunters skinning their catch without bothering to kill it. The letters of complaint, both in the newspapers and sent to the government, continued unabated. As Glenn Fowler points out, many saw the 1927 open season as representing indiscriminate slaughter for the monetary gain of a few, and found this unacceptable.44 To the Queensland Government, however, it was all about votes for the next election.
The Queensland Government's primary purpose in allowing the open season was to provide work for the rural unemployed, and applicants for permits under the Animals and Birds Acts 1921
would be issued permits only if they could satisfy the Licence Board that their primary employment would be trapping. It turned out that it was easy to hoodwink the Licence Board, and many permits were issued to people wanting to supplement their income. Indeed it appears that many unemployed people were prevented from hunting koalas by landowners, stockmen and other employees, who monopolised the prime possum and koala areas.45
As long as there was the hope of another open season being declared, some trappers would trap the whole year round. Winter skins were the most valuable, so most hunting began in late autumn and carried through to spring.46 Even if a hunter was found with koala skins in his possession during a closed season, it was almost impossible for anyone to prove that he hadn't come by the skins legally, during a recent open season. It was common knowledge that, before the announcement of the 1927 open season, illegal shooting and trapping of koalas had been going on for months, even years. According to Glenn Fowler, it has been argued that one of the reasons behind the final open season was to allow hunters to dispose of illegal skins obtained during the previous years of total protection.47
Whatever the reasons behind the final open season, the figures are frightening. During the 31 days of August 1927, 584 738 koala skins were officially 'secured' at an average price of 56 shillings and 9 pence per dozen. Thirty-eight Queensland companies were involved in fur trading at this time, with most
of the furs destined for St Louis in the United States.48 We can be sure that not all of these skins were collected during those 31 days, as it was almost universal practice for hunters to start collecting skins early, in anticipation of an open season.49 It must also be remembered that this total is only the skins that reached the market: it does not include wounded koalas whose bodies were never recovered; young koalas who died of starvation or were fed to the dogs; pelts that were damaged and rejected; or those sold as 'wombat' or other marsupial species.50 It is likely that the real death toll may have been as high as 800 000, well above the upper limit estimate of koalas remaining in the wild in Australia today.
In his book, The Great Extermination, Alan (Jock) Marshall recorded that a group of Queensland naturalists from the
Image rights unavailable
Koala skins in a Brisbane warehouse, 1927. (Originally published in the Daily Mail, Brisbane, 1927)
Nature Lover's League sent a circular in 1928 to all city, municipal, town and shire councils, and dingo boards of Queensland, seeking information regarding the number of koalas remaining in their districts. Of the 102 districts that responded, only three described the koalas as plentiful.51
At last the Queensland Government realised that allowing the open season to go ahead had been a mistake. The government had badly misjudged the strength of public opinion, and now had to set about saving face. On 11 October 1927, Acting Premier Smith announced that a scheme had been commenced for the restocking of districts denuded of native fauna.52 It was too little, too late. The government's poor understanding of the will of the people was reflected in the fact that it lost the next election. Whether or not this was a direct result of the open season cannot be established, but it was obviously a contributing factor.
In 1930, David Stead, President of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Australia, wrote to United States President Herbert Hoover, a former worker in the goldfields of Western Australia. Stead advised the president that koala skins labelled as 'wombat' were still being imported into North America, and implored him to prohibit the importation of both koala and wombat skins to the United States. Stead's letter was well-timed. In 1929, American economic nationalists had provided 10 684 pages of testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, testimony which prompted President Hoover to sign the Smoot-Hawley Traffic Act 1930 that 'got tough' with foreigners by virtually closing the United States' borders to imports.53 The president agreed to Stead's request and banned the importation of both koala and wombat skins into the United States, a decision which helped to ensure the survival of the koala. The closure of the main export market meant that there would be no further open seasons. Three years later, the Australian Government passed its legislation prohibiting the export of koalas and koala products.
Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce could have stopped the 1927 Queensland open season, but failed to do so. Despite the barrage of letters to state, national and international newspapers, on 28 July 1927 the prime minister said that he was
'continually getting into trouble for interfering with State rights, and the native bear question was a State matter'. He did concede that the export of skins came under Commonwealth control, but claimed that any interference on the part of the federal government would 'involve interference with the sovereign rights of the State'.54
Despite the furore in Queensland, the koala fur industry did not give up all hope. In 1932, Noel Burnett from Sydney's Koala Park recalled that 'only a few years ago a Fur Farming Committee appointed by the Government of New South Wales indicated their sympathy, but exhibited a lack of knowledge on the subject of the koala by recommending inter alia that farming of the koala for furs should not be permitted for sentimental reasons!'55
Ellis Troughton summed up the widespread condemnation of the open seasons:
It seems incredible that in a civilised community such a harmless native animal could have been so ruthlessly slaughtered for the self interest of trade and revenue. Evidence of the fur trade surviving in New South Wales, after they were supposedly protected is seen by the 57,933 pelts that passed through the Sydney Market alone in 1908. Instead of this slaughter being controlled, because of the obvious threat to survival, the general tally greatly increased until in 1924 the colossal total of over two million were exported from the eastern
States. Then, when the quaint creatures had been practically swept from New South Wales and Victoria by exploitation and disease, came the unkindest 'economic' cut of all.56
Troughton went on to say that 'indeed, a fellow feeling should make all Australians wondrous kind [sic] to the solemn little koalas, which should be granted perpetual freedom of the trees as a national emblem, rather than butchered to make economic holidays'.57
In 1937, naturalist Charles Barrett referred back to Queensland's last open season when he said that he feared one more open season would see the koala follow the dodo into extinction. Indeed he claimed that apart from those living in sanctuaries, the koala had long since been exterminated in New South Wales and South Australia. Barrett feared that the same fate would befall Queensland's koalas, leaving the future of the species dependent upon conservation efforts being made in Victoria, where he claimed there were about 1000 healthy 'bears', jealously guarded.58
Over four million koalas were killed for their skins, of which some 2.9 million were traded in Queensland alone.59 It is difficult to grasp the extent of such a slaughter, in today's more ecologically driven world, but the koala's narrow escape from extinction was a turning point in how Australians regard their fauna. Native animals were no longer merely a source of revenue for a selfish few, but a valuable cultural resource that belonged to all. Sadly, this change in attitude did not happen soon enough to save the thylacine, whose tragic story was being played out at the same time as that of the koala. Its supposed predation on sheep led to it being hunted to extinction. The koala did not take the final step into history, but the events of that 'Black August' of 1927, and the ultimate demise of the thylacine in 1936, would have a profound effect on the conservation of Australia's fauna.
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