An estimated 150,000 visitors come to the island [Kangaroo Island] every year to see its natural wonders—many of them from overseas. They will stop coming if the pristine bush is filled with dead and dying koalas in dead and dying trees.1
Islands play an important and controversial role in the koala's story. At the time of European settlement, the koala appears to have occurred naturally on up to six islands, though some of these islands are typically separated by only narrow tidal channels. Since approximately 1870 the koala has been introduced onto 20 islands.2 The koalas have been translocated for various reasons including research purposes, concern over dwindling populations, or overcrowding of existing habitats. Some animals were simply given as presents to people living on the islands! Unfortunately, in many cases, the introduction of koalas onto an island has resulted in a dramatic increase in koala numbers and the overpopulation of the new habitat. Here we explore the history of koalas on Australian islands, the reasons behind and repercussions of their introduction, before concentrating on the issues that have surrounded the management of koalas on Kangaroo Island since their introduction.
Koalas have called ten islands along Queensland's coast home. In 1931, the koala was introduced to Magnetic Island, eight kilometres off the coast of Townsville, and records indicate that 18 animals were translocated over a six-month period.3 Magnetic Island's koala population is now thought to be one of the most concentrated in north Queensland, but the numbers fluctuate. A combination of events in the 1970s, including a cyclone, dry weather, bushfires and dog attacks caused a significant decrease in the koala population, from 1400 in 1969 to 300 in 1977. The most recent estimates put the population at about 170 animals.4
Further south, koalas are found on four islands off the coast near Mackay, the smallest of which are Rabbit and Newry islands, which lie only 200 and 2900 metres respectively off the coast near Seaforth. Newry Island has a population
of only 10—15 animals, while nearby Rabbit Island is home to 30—40 animals.5 Further offshore are two larger islands— Brampton Island, some 32 kilometres north-east of Mackay, and St Bees Island, approximately 20 kilometres north-east of Mackay. There are no estimates of koala numbers on Brampton Island, as there appears to be no recent surveys, however there are thought to be between 100 and 300 animals on St Bees Island.6 The koalas on St Bees Island appear to be Chlamydia-positive, although the infection seems to be dormant as there is no overt expression of disease or any negative impact on fertility rates.7 The St Bees koalas are believed to have been introduced legally in 1938 by Mick Busuttin, who brought them from the Proserpine area with the intention of increasing tourism to the island. Between 1960 and 1968, with the help of the government ranger-in-residence, a number of the island's koalas were transferred to Brampton Island and Newry Island.8 A recent survey on St Bees Island revealed a relatively dense and healthy (by central Queensland standards) population of koalas, with no evidence of over-exploitation of the available food sources.9
At some point, koalas were introduced onto Quion Island some 4 kilometres off the coast of Gladstone in central Queensland, although it is not known when or how the koalas arrived on the island. Anecdotal reports claim that approximately 60—100 animals lived on the island until about 1960 when many trees were cleared to make way for a resort and the koalas became extinct.10 Local histories suggest koalas once occurred on Fraser Island, off the coast at Bundaberg, but they appear to have disappeared at the beginning of the 1900s.11 There is also a koala skull in the Queensland Museum that was collected on Bribie Island, off the coast near Brisbane.12
Queensland's southernmost island population of koalas is on North Stradbroke Island in Moreton Bay, some 20 kilometres off the coast near Brisbane. It is a small population, and it is not known for sure if the koalas were introduced or arrived there via a land bridge which has since sunk.13 There are no records that koalas were deliberately introduced, so it is generally assumed they occur naturally on the island.14 The population appears to be Chlamydia-positive although, like St Bees Island population, the infection seems to be dormant. Recent surveys found only one animal exhibiting symptoms of conjunctivitis, suggesting that the population is unstressed.15 To the west of North Stradbroke Island, approximately halfway along its length, lies Coochiemudlo Island that also holds koalas. This island occurs very close to the coastline, and it is likely that the koalas arrived there without human assistance.
The Queensland islands do not seem to have the problem of overpopulation so common on other islands, although no-one really knows why this should be so. Chlamydia-related diseases cannot be blamed as there are only occasional cases of conjunctivitis on Magnetic Island, Brampton Island and North Stradbroke Island, but perhaps even this low occurrence, in combination with a harsh environment and natural disasters such as cyclones, is enough to limit population growth.
The only attempt to introduce koalas onto an island in New South Wales was at Hallstrom Island in Lake Eucumbene. In 1962, four animals from Stony Rises in Victoria were translocated to the island, but failed to establish a population.16 Four Victorian koalas were also introduced on to Three Hummock Island, off the north-west coast of Tasmania, some time before 1966, but none of them were seen again and the population failed to become established.17 There appears to be no government records of this introduction so it may have been unofficial.
In Victoria, animals are known to have been transferred on to French Island, Phillip Island and Quail Island in Western Port Bay, though it is difficult to establish the exact details of by whom, why, when or how many.18 Koalas are thought to have been introduced onto French Island by Jim Peters, a farmer and seafarer from Bass Hill, who brought two or three Chlamydia-free koalas to the east of the island in the 1890s.19 (As we will discuss in Chapter 10, the existence of Chlamydia, let alone the fact that it is sexually transmitted, was not known at this time, although sick animals were sometimes observed.) Peters is also rumoured to have given a pair of koalas to a lady friend who lived in the Kiernans Settlement on the island's north-east, and perhaps he was prompted to move the animals to the island by the bushfires that almost destroyed the entire Gippsland region.
We know that the original animals were Chlamydia-free by the fact that they multiplied rapidly. By the early 1920s, approximately 2300 koalas were observed in an 8-kilometre stretch along the island's west coast. The explosion in koala numbers meant that the island's manna gums were being defoliated and killed, prompting local farmers to request the state government's permission to shoot the animals in order to save the trees. Their request was denied, and so began the first official translocation programme. Locals were offered two shillings and sixpence for each koala they caught, bagged and brought to the harbour to be shipped to the mainland. In 1923, the Department of Fisheries and Game moved 50 koalas to nearby Phillip Island. The same year, six koalas were sent to Kangaroo Island, in South Australia, with a further 12 being sent in 1925. Small numbers were captured and translocated each year to various destinations around Victoria. Between 1930 and 1933 a total of 165 animals were transferred to Quail Island, situated to the north-west of French Island. French Island's koala population is still thriving, due to the continued absence of Chlamydia, and is still regulated by annual translocations. To date, over 8000 koalas have been translocated off the island, but it is hoped that in the future the population's fertility rate can be managed through hormone implants.20
Mr J. Smith, from Bass River, is thought to have introduced 'a few' koalas onto Phillip Island in Western Port Bay in 1870.21 A further 50 animals were transferred from French Island in
1923, from which point the population growth rate appears to have accelerated until 1941, when browsing pressure on the trees led the Fisheries and Game Department to translocate 114 koalas off the island. By 1945, 1544 animals had been removed and, by the time the translocation programme ended in 1978, more than 3350 koalas had been moved from the island. By the late 1980s, however, the Phillip Island koala population was in decline as a result of traffic accidents, dog attacks and habitat loss. Diseases such as Chlamydia had caused the fertility rate to fall to 12 per cent. Today there are only about 100 koalas on the island and their numbers are probably still declining.22 Due to the presence of Chlamydia the population may not be considered of conservation significance on a statewide scale, although the koalas are important to the islanders who are eager for them to persist. As a result there have been tree-planting programmes, traffic controls introduced and education programmes about responsible dog ownership developed to help the remaining koala population survive.
Quail Island is also located in Western Port Bay south of Melbourne. The island was declared a sanctuary for native game in March 1928, and gazetted as a State Game Reserve in 1960. Its population of Chlamydia-free koalas was established by the transfer of 165 animals from French Island over a three-year period, from 1930 to 1933. By late 1943, however, the koala population had exploded to such an extent that the island's trees were being defoliated and hundreds of animals were found either dead or starving to death. The koala's plight was recorded on film and shown in Melbourne in 1944. Despite the film clearly depicting dead and dying animals, the then Chief Secretary of the Victorian Government issued a statement criticising the film for conveying 'the mistaken impression that the bears on the island were dying of starvation'. He even said it was 'a common sight to see koalas sunning themselves on dead timber'. To avoid any further embarrassment, the government used its wartime powers of censorship to prevent the film being shown outside Australia.23 An 'inspection party' who visited the island in 1944 found about 60 dead koalas of different ages, proof that the deaths were not at the natural rate.24 Thankfully the calls for action were acted upon swiftly and 1308 Quail Island koalas were captured and moved to the Brisbane Ranges National Park and various other localities throughout Victoria.25 The trees presumably recovered fairly quickly, as in April 1947, 32 koalas from Phillip Island were released on Quail Island. However, a 1951 survey observed only one koala. There were calls for the remaining koala population, which may have been the single animal known, to be removed, although there is no evidence of this occurring. A 1958 survey also revealed only a single koala, with none at all to be seen during a bird survey in 1962. Today, Quail Island is apparently free of koalas.26
Quail Island's neighbour in Western Port Bay is Chinaman Island, which in 1958 was reserved for wildlife.27 Fifteen koalas were translocated from French Island in 1930, 30 more in 1931
and 48 in 1957.28 This last and largest introduction went ahead despite an inspection in November 1943 that discovered only 20 koalas and that a large proportion of trees on the island were either dead or dying as a result of overbrowsing. In 1944 six koalas were removed. A subsequent inspection in October 1952 expressed concern over the fire risk to the island's estimated 50—100 koalas, as a result of which 39 animals were removed to Nagambie, O'Shannessy Reservoir and Warragul in 1952. A survey in February 1978 failed to reveal any koalas.29
In the early 1980s, a small number of koalas were introduced onto Quail Island to study the transmission of Chlamydia on the island in order to confirm that the bacteria was sexually transmitted.30 During this study both infected and uninfected female koalas were also introduced onto Churchill Island, that is connected to Phillip Island's eastern shore via a causeway, as control population for animals translocated to Quail Island. In the absence of male koalas there was no transmission of the disease from the infected to uninfected females. Again, these animals did not establish. Studies such as these have been critical to our understanding, and in turn management, of Chlamydia-infected and Chlamydia-free populations of koalas.
Koalas were introduced onto Snake Island in the Gipps-land Lakes in 1945, with the translocation of 69 animals from Phillip Island and 64 animals from French Island.31 Additional animals, of unknown location, were introduced in 1955, but bushfires are thought to have reduced the population, as only a few koalas were seen in a 1961 survey.32 More koalas were released on the island in 1963 and this time the population increased steadily, until by 2001 it was estimated at 2860.33 With a surface area of only 4623 hectares, the density of Snake Island's koala population was causing significant defoliation of manna gums and thousands of trees were dying. In 1997—98, researchers had observed increased koala mortality as a result of overbrowsing, though not to the same extent as on Quail Island.34 In order to avoid a repetition of the tragic events on Quail Island, since 1999 more than 1900 of Snake Island's koalas have been sterilised and relocated to suitable habitats on the mainland. Regular burn-offs and a reseeding programme have helped Snake Island's koala habitat to recover.35 The population of koalas is Chlamydia-positive on Snake Island and is being reduced through a determined programme of translocation and sterilisation, with the aim of removing them entirely.36 Further to the north-east of Snake Island is Saint Margaret Island that is separated from the mainland by a tidal channel and appears to have been self-colonised as there are no records of release there.37
Raymond Island is located in King Lake, one of the Gipps-land Lakes, and was colonised in 1953 by 42 Phillip Island koalas.38 For years, the koala population remained relatively stable as a result of Chlamydia and the environmental bacteria Mycobacterium ulcerans, increasing from 206 to 312 individuals between 1980 and 1992.39 However, by 2003 the population had nearly doubled, to 605 animals and, as on other islands, the rapid increase in koala numbers resulted in defoliation and dieback of Raymond Island's manna gums to the point that a population crash was inevitable.40 To avoid this, in October 2005, 300 animals, almost half the population, were removed to the foothills north of Bairnsdale in eastern Victoria. The success of the translocation can be seen that, four weeks after release, a sample of 30 radio-collared animals had a survival rate of 100 per cent.41 In the future, Raymond Island's koala population may be managed by fertility control through hormone implants, rather than translocation.
To the south of Raymond Island in the Gippsland Lakes is Rotamah Island. This area, which is not really an island, is part of a long narrow tongue of land that separates the Gippsland
Lakes (specifically Lake Reeve) from the ocean. It is separated from the rest of the tongue by a tidal channel, which is now crossed by a causeway.42 Koalas were released at Sperm Whale Head in 1966 and 1982, and this population has presumably spread through the surrounding Lakes National Park, including along the arm separating Lake Reeve from the ocean which includes Rotamah Island. Therefore this island appears to have been naturally settled by koalas.
Wartook Island, or Bear Island, is a small island in an artificial water impoundment in the Grampians National Park in western Victoria. In 1947, 12 koalas were transferred onto the island from Creswick Koala Reserve, followed in 1948 by a further 16 from Phillip Island. However, all the island's animals were subsequently moved as it was realised that the island was too small to sustain a viable koala population. In 1957, 38 animals were translocated to Mount Cole; in 1963, 20 went to the surrounding Grampians National Park and six to Mildura; and a further 30 were moved to Teddington Lakes in 1965, which appears to have cleared the island of koalas.43
Inland there are three islands that lie along the length of the Murray River. Two islands that occur in Victoria include Ulupna Island north of Strathmerton (and west of Tocumwal) and Pental Island, which is located near Swan Hill. In 1976 an unknown number of koalas from Phillip Island were introduced on to Pental Island, followed in 1981 by a further 27 from French Island.44 Koalas became extinct on Ulupna Island in 1902, but were reintroduced in 1976 when an unknown number of animals were transferred from Phillip Island. In 1977, a further 97 animals were transferred from French Island, which resulted in a population becoming successfully re-established.45 Both of these large 'islands' are formed by anabranches of the Murray River and minor streams, and it appears that koalas can cross the river to the adjacent banks at certain times. The koala populations are healthy, although there are periodic increases in mortality rates when the islands' red gums are attacked by outbreaks of cup moth caterpillars.46
The third island that occurs along the Murray River is Goat Island, south of Remark in north-east South Australia. In 1959 ten koalas were released onto the island into a 1.6 hectare enclosure in the National Trust Reserve. The animals came from the Adelaide Koala farm and were hybrids of koalas from Kangaroo Island and Queensland. Breeding was observed in both 1960 and 1961, and when the island flooded in 1960 koalas could be seen swimming between the trees. Four animals from Flinders Chase National Park were released onto the island in 1963. By this time, however, the koalas' food trees, black box, were beginning to show signs of defoliation. To counter this, the size of the enclosure was increased to 2.4 hectares and koala numbers reduced to five. The koalas found it easy to escape from the enclosure, and when it was destroyed in the floods of 1973—74, no attempt was made to rebuild it. The koalas were given the run of the island and, by 1976, the population was estimated at 24 individuals, though more recent numbers are not known.47
Kangaroo Island lies off the coast of South Australia. Fossil evidence indicates that there were koalas on the island 10 000 years ago, although none were present at the time of European settlement.48 Between 1923 and 1925, concerns about the possible extinction of the koala in South Australia led to a total of 18 koalas from French Island being introduced into the island's Flinders Chase National Park. Eight more animals were introduced during 1955-56, and in 1958, 12 animals were introduced into Cygnet River Valley.49
By 1960, however, the island's koalas had bred so successfully that many of the island's manna gums had been defoliated, and it was feared the remaining food trees would die within the next few years. To save the island's koala population from starvation and death, in 1969 koalas were transferred from Kangaroo Island to the property 'Mikkira', north-west of Slea-ford Bay, Eyre Peninsula. The same year saw the reintroduction of koalas were to their former range in the lower south-east of the state, when six koalas were released onto the property 'Vivigani', north-west of Lucindale.50
By 1994, however, the island's koala population was estimated to be between 3000 and 5000. Such high numbers were significantly impacting on the health of not only the manna gums, but also the blue gums and river red gums—over 50 per cent of the tree canopy had been defoliated.51 In April 1996, mounting concern over the increasing koala population led the South Australian Government to establish a koala management task force to develop options for managing the overabundant koalas.52 A control programme was implemented in 1997 with the aim of reducing the koala population by sterilising both males and females and translocating as many animals as possible to the south-east of the state.53 By 2000, 3396 koalas had been sterilised, 1105 of which had been translocated successfully. The control programme showed that the actual Kangaroo Island koala population was much, much higher than the 1994 estimate. In 2001, it was estimated that numbers were somewhere between 24 000 to 30 000 animals.54 Kangaroo Island's koala population will always require active management and, as we will see later in this chapter, this task is both difficult and controversial.
A common theme running through the above examples of introduced koala populations in both Victoria and South Australia is one of overabundance—of koala numbers increasing to the extent that their new habitats can no longer support them. Why does this happen? Roger Martin and Kathrine Handasyde point out that a female koala can produce up to ten young over her breeding life. If koala births are not offset by juvenile mortality rates, a population can grow extremely rapidly. Introducing disease-free koalas to secure island habitats where there are no indigenous predators removes two of the main causes of juvenile mortality.55 The koalas' food source is, however, finite, and if a koala population is left to grow unchecked its food trees quickly become defoliated and begin to die. If the koalas themselves are not to die a slow and painful death from starvation, their numbers must be reduced. If their numbers are not reduced, lack of food results in reduced breeding and high mortality rates, causing the population to crash until a level is reached that is sustainable. This cycle can continue over and over unless the population declines to extinction.
To consider the issues involved in the management of island populations of koalas, let's look at what happened on Kangaroo Island in more detail. As we saw above, by the early 1990s it was clear that the island's koalas were destroying their food supply, and in 1996 the state's then minister for the environment established a koala management task force, comprising 11 representatives from the scientific and conservation communities, animal welfare groups and state and local governments. The task force considered various options for managing the koala population including: protecting and restoring degraded habitat; suppressing fertility rates either by introducing the bacterial disease Chlamydia or by surgical or hormonal methods; translocating animals to other sites; culling surplus animals; or doing nothing. In its final report to the minister, the task force rejected the option of doing nothing on the basis that it was irresponsible and also rejected the introduction of Chlamydia on animal welfare grounds.
To understand the full context of the controversy that followed, we must consider the task force's major recommendations. They were unanimous in recommending that the koala population on the island be reduced, and put forward six key proposals to achieve this goal: culling at the most affected sites; translocating a limited number of koalas to sites in the south-east of the state, where records indicated the presence of koalas post-European settlement; maintaining lower koala densities through fertility suppression; developing a habitat protection and restoration programme on Kangaroo Island and in the south-east of the state; developing a community education programme; and expanding and maintaining research on koalas.56
This was not the first time that a cull of Kangaroo Island's koalas had been mooted. In March 1996, before the Koala Management Task Force was convened, national and international media were in a frenzy over calls by South Australian wildlife officials for up to 2000 of the island's koalas to be culled. It was claimed that the animals would die of stress if moved to the mainland. In late March 1996, Reuters ran the headline 'Australian government moves over koala cull proposal', stating that the government had stepped in to 'quash a proposal to cull up to 2000 koalas on an Australian wildlife sanctuary island'. The Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) fuelled the debate by stating that 'with a koala population of between 40 000 and 80 000, Australia could not afford to lose 2000 of one of the country's national symbols'.57 (As we will see in Chapter 11 the Australian koala population may be considerably higher than this estimate.)
In November 1996, America's CNN aired a story titled 'Koalas overcrowded down under'. They reported that about 5000 'real-life teddy bears' inhabit Kangaroo Island and quoted the task force's chairperson, Hugh Possingham, as saying that 'the ecosystem is under threat, not just for koalas but for everything else'. Professor Possingham also pointed out that 'more trees will die, koalas will start starving and eventually they'll die a long, slow, prolonged death'. Despite the task force's recommendations, state Environment Minister David Wotton said that no koalas would be killed, although other government officials said 'moving or sterilising the marsupials isn't practical, and that killing 2000 of the koalas is the most humane solution'. CNN's coverage ended by saying that 'whatever decision is made, it will have to be made quickly, before nature resolves the problem with starving'.58
It was obvious that the public would oppose any cull of koalas and, in reality, the task force's proposal to cull koalas never had any chance of success. The National Koala Conservation Strategy, jointly developed by the Commonwealth, states and territories through the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) had already considered culling. However at the ANZECC meeting in May 1996, Ministers had rejected the use of culling in any koala management programme.59
The Australian National Party supported the task force's call to cull koalas, but both the AKF and the RSPCA warned of a major public backlash. This is despite the fact that humane culling is considered acceptable in the control of the island's indigenous species that are overabundant—Cape Barren geese, western grey kangaroos and an estimated one million tammar wallabies of which at least 20 000 are culled each year. Several million marsupials of various species are culled in other parts of Australia each year—red kangaroos, eastern grey kangaroos, wallaroos or euros, western grey kangaroos, whiptail wallabies, Tasmanian bettongs, swamp wallabies and Bennett's wallabies. Culling is also used to manage introduced pests such as feral pigs, deer and goats; rabbit numbers are managed through the introduction of diseases such as myxomatosis and the calici virus, and the poison 1080 has been widely used to kill foxes and cats. All of these programmes have their critics, but each is recognised as critical to the management of species overpopulation.
The strength of the public reaction against culling led the South Australian Government to ignore the task force's recommendation. In 1997, it announced that it would be implementing a more humane (and less politically damaging), but costlier campaign of sterilisation and relocation. To avoid similar overpopulation problems at the translocation release site, all translocated animals were sterilised. Sterilising animals does not reduce a population quickly, however, as it takes a number of years for the population growth to slow. This means that there is still a problem of overcrowding, particularly as sterilisation can increase female longevity. Sterilisation is an effective management tool only if it is undertaken in combination with translocation.
Modelling by Professor Possingham and his colleagues suggested that to achieve an infertility rate of 70 per cent, between 2100 and 3500 koalas would need to be sterilised in the first 18 months of the programme. This figure was based on calculations and estimated populations since the koala's introduction onto the island, which indicated that every female koala on Kangaroo Island was replacing itself with about three females over ten years (males were not included in the equation). Therefore approximately 25 koalas in 1930 became 75 in 1940, 225 in 1950, 675 in 1960, 2000 in 1970, and so on. Effectively, the population increases by a factor of ten every 20 years, which means that to stop population growth two-thirds or approximately 70 per cent of females must be sterilised. In other words, of every three koalas only one can be allowed to breed.60
To reduce the numbers of koalas as rapidly as possible, 30 per cent of the animals in the Cygnet River Valley would also need to be translocated. The programme's overall target was to sterilise at least 2500 koalas, 1500 of which would be moved to suitable habitats elsewhere. Between January 1997 and June 2000 a total of 3396 koalas (68 per cent of the island's estimated population) were sterilised. Most of these animals were from the Cygnet River Valley, but 23 per cent came from other catchment areas. A third of these koalas (1105 animals) were translocated to suitable habitats in south-east South Australia. The cost of sterilisation was AU$148 per koala, with an additional AU$82 per animal for translocation. The programme's total budget, including monitoring the situation, designing and instigating a community education programme and ongoing population estimates, was AU$1.235 million.61 More recent figures suggest that by 31 December 2006, 6100 animals had been sterilised, with another 1600 to undergo the procedure over the next four months.62 As a result of this programme, significant improvements in the food trees' condition have been observed at 100 monitoring sites.
In their review of the Kangaroo Island sterilisation and translocation programme, Duka and Masters identified a number of disadvantages and risks: the stress caused by capture and handling; the invasive nature and high cost of the surgical procedure; potential post-translocation mortality; the possible spread of disease; the need to sterilise translocated animals so they do not contaminate the resident population; the environmental impact of introducing new animals to an area; and the possibility of significant browse impact on the new habitat's vegetation. They also noted that without the commitment of sufficient, long-term resources and funding, such a programme runs the risk that any gains can disappear very rapidly, resulting in a wasted investment.63
The management option taken for Kangaroo Island has been criticised as short-sighted and as refusing to deal with long-term population management problems. Has the possibility of real, long-term gains been sacrificed to political expediency by addressing social and political issues rather than biological and environmental issues? Duka and Masters suggest that funding the sterilisation and translocation approach diverted much-needed funds from other environmental projects, and that perhaps this funding would have been better spent addressing the broader issues of effective communication and public education about cheaper and more effective lethal control options such as culling.
The sterilisation and translocation programme made it clear that the Kangaroo Island koala population was significantly above the 1994 upper estimate of 5000, so a detailed survey was undertaken. This found that the true koala population was indeed much larger than had previously been estimated—five times larger! The island was home to not 5000 koalas, but 27 000 (>24 000 and <30 000) koalas.64 As all the task force's modelling had been based on the initial estimate, these new figures threw the entire programme into chaos and led to renewed and stronger calls to cull the animals.
David Paton from the University of Adelaide stated categorically that the island's koala population had reached an unsustainable level. Overbrowsing was seriously damaging or killing the animals' food trees, and many koalas were showing signs of malnutrition. He urged the South Australian Government to take the task force's advice and cull up to 20 000 koalas. In October 2001, the BBC in London picked up the story, running a headline of '20,000 koalas face slaughter'.65 At the same time, CNN's headline read 'Icon status saves koalas from cull threat', claiming that the South Australian Government had rejected proposals for a mass cull, and that it would look at other ways of controlling the animal population. The South Australian state environment minister told CNN that 'there will be no koala cull'.66
In November, the Telegraph in the United Kingdom ran the headline 'Ecologists call for cull to save koala'. The article claimed that in five years the koala population had soared to 33 000 from an estimated 5000, raising fears that the animals' food trees would soon disappear. It noted 'a confidential report by the state government's wildlife advisory committee, published in part yesterday by the Adelaide Advertiser, said "soft" policies of sterilisation and translocation might not be in the best interests of conservation'. David Paton was quoted as saying that 'without a cull Kangaroo Island would face a bleak future in which virtually every tree was dead, and lying underneath those trees were the carcases of koalas that had starved to death'. Despite these claims the South Australian Government held that the koala's iconic status made the possibility of a cull unthinkable.67
The most controversial method for managing the overabundant koala populations was aired in February 2002, on
ABC Radio National's 'Ockhams's Razor', hosted by Robyn Williams. Williams' guest was Clive Hamilton, executive director of The Australia Institute in Canberra, and during their discussion of the problems on Kangaroo Island, Williams asked: 'Could we turn our present oversupply [of koalas] in South Australia and Victoria into a cash bonanza? Is there a business opportunity here that's so far escaped the notice of our otherwise keen-eyed entrepreneurs?' In reply, Hamilton told Williams, potentially with tongue in cheek, that the situation presented a unique opportunity to break into the lucrative American market. Under his scheme professional hunters would closely supervise amateurs as they tracked and shot koalas. For inexperienced hunters and children learning to use guns, it might even be possible to capture some koalas and place them in enclosures so that hunters could shoot them at close range.68
During May 2002 the National Geographic News ran the headline 'Koalas overrunning Australia island "Ark"'. An AKF spokesperson was quoted as saying that sterilising the animals was a 'knee-jerk' reaction. In contrast, the Kangaroo Island Regional Manager for National Parks and Wildlife South Australia said that 'when we remove the koalas, the trees recover. It is a clear indication that the koalas are the problem'. National Geographic News noted that 'A national conservation policy dictates how individual states manage their koala populations, but South Australia's decision to sterilise sparked public outcry and heated debate. Politics, economics and the "Bambi factor" stirred as much discussion as the science'.69
Almost two years later, the debate was still raging. In March 2004, the ABC Online published an article entitled, 'Call continues for Kangaroo Island cull', in which leading scientists said that it was 'imperative to remove what is an introduced species'. Matt Turner of the South Australian Nature Conservation Society said 'the State Government needed to heed the calls that an environmental disaster is looming'. Professor Hugh Possingham accused the state government of 'not acting rationally' and asked, 'How many tammar wallabies do we cull on Kangaroo Island every year—10 000, 20 000, 30 000?' He also noted that 'we cull millions of kangaroos in Australia every year and we cull Cape Barren geese, which not long ago was a threatened species, and as a scientist I see no reason why koalas should be any different'.70 But clearly they are very different. The Labor state environment minister71 stood firm saying, 'South Australia's international reputation is at stake'. He also claimed that 'Japan in particular, the media there go absolutely berko every time this issue is raised and we rely a lot on the international market for our tourists, so this issue has to be resolved in a sensitive way and that's what the government is trying to do'.72 The fact that neither a Liberal nor a Labor government would support a cull clearly shows that they were nervous of the effect an adverse public reaction would have on the ballot box, which in turn reflects the importance the koala has for ordinary Australians.
In April, the ABC's The 7:30 Report aired a programme titled 'SA shies away from koala cull', during which journalist Mike Sexton interviewed representatives of the three main interest groups. David Paton said, 'We've got to get 20 000 koalas off the island. I don't say that lightly, but I am saying it because I have an appreciation of the impact that it will have if you allow the habitat degradation to continue'. In stark contrast to Paton's comments, it was proposed by the AKF that 'if [the cull] did go ahead the world would condemn us and tourism would probably dry up'. They also said that the koala 'brings $2.5 billion dollars worth of tourism to our shores. This animal is universally loved and it is not owned by Australia. This is a global animal'. Senator John Hill said that 'I guarantee you that as a result of you raising this interview, I will be getting emails and calls and media requests from Japan and Britain and Belgium and France and everywhere else, and the United States, because that's what happens every time this issue is raised'.73 To date there does not appear to have been any real study of the effect a cull of the Kangaroo Island koalas would have on the tourism industry, at either a local or a national level. It is also interesting to note that, during this period, Professor Hugh Possingham gave some interviews to overseas media agencies and no-one made strong negative comments against his culling proposal.74 It is certainly possible that the impact on tourism, if any, would have been short-lived, and the old adage that 'any publicity is good publicity' would only have increased the island's profile and, ultimately, visitor numbers.
Also in April 2004, Channel Nine's A Current Affair aired the segment 'Koala cull: The Kangaroo Island controversy'. David Paton again called for the immediate cull of up to 20 000 koalas. He said 'the most effective, humane and ethical way of doing it is to shoot them'. Graeme Rees, who has worked with the Kangaroo Island koalas for 30 years, also felt that a cull was the only option. He said, 'We just want the public to understand that we are not happy about it either; we are the ones who have to do it, but it's going to have to be done'. A Current Affair noted that 'The South Australian Government knows this issue is so controversial that supporting a cull could mean losing an election. But for experts who work with these beautiful animals day in and day out, there's no other way'.75
Despite an official ban on shooting koalas on Kangaroo Island, a British Sky News report of 3 March 2005 showed a 'Kangaroo Island resident' with his back to the camera, claiming that not only had he shot and killed many koalas on the island, but if the cameras were not rolling he would be shooting the koala they were looking at. The Kangaroo Island Mayor, Michael Pingilly, also supported a cull, saying that 'shooting koalas is the most efficient and quick way and kindest way of reducing the numbers because it is an easy target and a bullet to the brain they don't even know'. This report prompted the AKF's media release of 18 April 2005, '"Vigilantes" carrying out koala cull', in which they claimed that the report 'confirmed what we have been suspecting for a while'. The AKF stressed that under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 the penalty for killing a single koala is a fine of up to AU$5000 and/or 12 months' imprisonment, and called on John Hill to take a hard line on koala protection issues.76 Faced with an impending visit of a Japanese TV—Asahi film crew, who had been drawn to the island by the ongoing controversy, and fully aware of the importance of the Japanese tourist market, the state government refused to investigate the allegations of local farmers shooting koalas.
By May 2004, the issue had reached Spain, with the Reuters agency running a report which claimed that 'some 30 000 koalas on Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, are stripping the island of its native gum trees, destroying the ecosystem and causing a koala famine, say environmentalists and national parks officials'. Sandra Knack, spokeswoman for the Australian Democrats, said 'we are talking thousands of starving koalas' who were 'so hungry they were eating pine needles'. She also said that 'while they may be cute and cuddly we need to get beyond the emotion to reality . . . my suggestion is for professional shooters to do it quickly and cleanly'. She asked, 'What will tourists think of a habitat of denuded trees with desperate, starving koalas roaming the damaged landscape?' The Kangaroo Island tourist operators say a koala cull would severely damage the island's tourist industry.77
Senator John Hill's media release of May 2005 suggested that 'Koala crisis fixed with $4 million injection'. He claimed that culling the koalas would destroy Kangaroo Island's estimated AU$53 million tourism industry, putting at risk 650 jobs on the island. The South Australian Government proposed the size of the koala population when they said the 'programme will sterilise more than 8000 of the 13 000 koalas which are eating through manna gum trees in the areas of important habitat on the island'. The media release also said that 'we intend to relocate hundreds of sterilised koalas to the state's southeast, reducing pressure on the island'. The government endeavoured to allay the fears of people by suggesting that 'our solution is simple'.78
Throughout the protracted and sometimes acrimonious debate, it was suggested that 'fencing degraded habitats and indeed the simplest task of all—planting more trees—' were the best solutions.79 Unfortunately, the koala's food trees are not distributed evenly as each species' locality is determined by environmental factors such as soil type, rainfall, topography and aspect. It was revealed by Barbara St John from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources that of Kangaroo Island's remaining 207 000 hectares of native vegetation, only 1400 hectares (less than 1 per cent) could be considered optimal koala habitat. Most of this vegetation occurred in the river valleys. Some 141 000 hectares, or 68 per cent, of the remaining vegetation comprises Mallee species, which are considered unsuitable for koalas.80 It had also been claimed that the tree-killing cinnamon fungus Phytophthora cinnamoni was killing the Eucalyptus trees on Kangaroo Island.81 This fungus is highly mobile and known to have killed many eucalypts in various regions of Australia, but it cannot be held responsible for the deaths of the manna gums on Kangaroo Island. Indeed if cinnamon fungus was present on the island, the trees that were fenced off are likely to die anyway if infected. The identity of the real culprit is revealed by the reality that in areas where the koalas have been removed, dying trees have recovered.
The truth is that even if the entire island was planted exclusively with food trees that koalas consumed and that these trees grew prolifically there would still be a problem with defoliation, dying trees and ultimately starving koalas. The reason this would occur is that koala numbers would continue to grow exponentially for the simple reason that the primary limiting agents on koala population growth, such as predators and disease, are not present on Kangaroo Island. We must remember that every species has the potential to overpopulate if it is not regulated by external forces, and an unregulated population will outgrow its resources, just as we humans are overpopulating the Earth and over-exploiting its natural resources.
During the debate it has been suggested that 'there is adequate collective scientific knowledge to resolve the koala issue on the island dispassionately, and with the best long-term interests of the koala and the Kangaroo Island ecosystem in mind'.82
To date, the best of the nation's scientists and koala biologists have made recommendations on how to manage the problem of Kangaroo Island 'dispassionately', but their key management proposal, culling, has been rejected by well-meaning interest groups.
Some interest groups are also not in favour of the sterilisation or translocation of koalas, even though numerous island and mainland populations have been successfully translocated:
we constantly hear rhetoric about translocation and sterilisation being in the best interests of the bush that is damaged and in the best interest of the koala themselves. However neither end results has been achieved. An ill conceived process that disregards social structure, habitat viability and dignity of the animals is doomed from the beginning.83
As we have seen, the three main players in the fight over the management of Kangaroo Island's koalas were the pragmatic scientists, the often emotive animal interest groups and the politicians endeavouring to represent the broader community attitudes. The scientists' proposal to cull koalas was always going to be difficult to sell. It is easy to emphasise the negative aspect of culling, especially the image of a cute, defenceless animal being shot in cold blood. The koala's iconic position both at home and abroad made it easy for interest groups to create an emotional attachment to the animal.
As early as 1998, Hugh Possingham had highlighted the difficulty of selling the scientists' message. He recalls that 'There's the cuddly koala. I mean, at the same time that I was saying "Kill two thousand koalas", that same week, believe it or not, Bill Clinton's daughter cuddles a koala. And Michael Jackson cuddles a koala—arguably the two most powerful people on the entire planet said they loved koalas, and here I was trying to shoot two thousand of them'.84
An intriguing phenomenon of the culling debate is the public's perception of cruelty. When reporters claimed that culling was 'cruel', researchers countered that there was no cruelty involved when an animal is shot cleanly and dies instantly. How much more cruel is it to take an animal out of its natural habitat, subject it to an invasive surgical procedure and then release it into a strange environment?85
Phil Bagust from the University of South Australia's School of Communication, Information and New Media summed up the issue by saying that 'while the koala may be losing the battle for "natural selection", it is a huge winner in the "cultural selection" stakes'.86 What, however, does the koala gain from such a victory? The fate of the koalas on Kangaroo Island highlights the politics and controversy of managing such an iconic species. Clearly all species have not been created equally.
Was this article helpful?