Burning our koalas: Australia's shame

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(Image by @Kelvin.Stagram / Facebook)

The anger which is being fed daily by the abject refusal of politicians to address climate impacts is gaining the same intensity as the fires, which have burned an area the size of South Korea — so far.

Grief and anger are erupting all over Australia as the fires continue their deadly path and ongoing drought wreaks havoc on the land.

With scientists and ecologists estimating over one billion animals have perished, this figure is by their admission a gross underestimate as it fails to take into account plants, insects, ecosystems, and the ongoing effects of fires and drought.

Well-known author and journalist Richard Flanagan told Ian Masters Background Briefing podcast that Australia is the Chernobyl of climate change. Few would argue with his assessment.

To put Richard Flanagan’s projection into perspective, the Australian Wildlife Conservancy says Australia is one of the most important nations on Earth for biodiversity. One of only l7 "mega-diverse" nations and home to more species than any other developed country.

“Most of Australia’s wildlife is found nowhere else in the world. 87% of our mammal species, 93% of frogs and 45% of our bird species are found only in Australia.”

It’s not as if there were any policies, legislation or focus on protecting habitat or increasingly endangered animals like the koala before the fires and ongoing drought. This continued refusal of governments to address climate impacts is tantamount to crimes against nature.

Scientists say that many species will become extinct as a result of the multiple catastrophes.

Warnings from the scientific community to the NSW and Queensland governments demonstrating koalas on the edge of extinction as a result of massive urbanisation, logging, mining and exponential clearing of habitat are ignored.  

At the Federal level, the appointment of a mining lawyer followed by a former waitress, cleaner and trained but did not complete training as an air traffic controller as Environment Minister, ensured that any protection of the environment would be at the bottom of the political totem pole.  

While the Labor Federal Government in 2012 declared the koala vulnerable in NSW, Queensland and the ACT, under the provisions of the EPBC Act, South Australian and Victorian populations were considered to be in their hundreds of thousands and therefore excluded from listing.

Both states have roles to play in ensuring the promotion of very high koalas numbers for propaganda purposes. Both Labor and Coalition Federal governments have consistently claimed these population estimates demonstrate that even if koalas on the East Coast are close to extinction, these two states’ koalas are in good shape.

Therefore Australia is ensuring koalas are safe and well cared for so "no worries, mate" about their survival.

IA ‘s investigation into these two koala states has uncovered gross mismanagement to the utter detriment of the species. Sterilisation programs, translocations and culling of “excess” koalas and over-browsing of available eucalypts is commonplace in both states,

The news that fires have wiped out almost all Kangaroo Island's koalas – estimated to number 50,000 – created global concern. Added to the 8,000 koalas Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley estimates were incinerated on the NSW mid-North Coast, koalas' future survival looks increasingly frail.

Koala numbers on Kangaroo Island are nothing short of extraordinary. As is the death toll. The bushfire mortality highlights one of the major contributors to the catastrophic death toll. Bluegum plantations.

In 2015, there were an estimated 25,000 koalas in native vegetation on Kangaroo Island and an additional 23,000 estimated to be on bluegum plantation. According to the South Australian Government, more than 13,500 koalas have been sterilised or contracepted on the Island.    

Yet prior to the establishment of bluegum plantations on Kangaroo Island, koalas lived in relatively sustainable colonies. In spite of ongoing years of complaints that there were “too many koalas on the island”, the addition of a further 23,000 in the plantations was a recipe for disaster at every level.

According to a study undertaken by the Western Australian Government, bluegum plantations carry sufficient fuel to support an intense fire.

There is a growing body of evidence from case studies to show that from an age of 6 years bluegum plantations carry sufficient fuel to support an intense fire and that when fire danger conditions are Extreme and all fine fuel is available to burn the difficulty of suppressing a fire in a bluegum plantation will be much greater than in grazed pasture.

According to the (no longer funded) Australian Government's own Bushfire CRC website:

'From a plantation industry perspective, the probability of serious fire losses being incurred is likely to increase as the average age of the plantation estate increases.'

What is ignored in the fire risk evaluations is the fate of koalas who have taken up residence in the plantations. The end result on Kangaroo Island? Almost 90% of the population cremated.

Plantations represent a massive smorgasbord of koala food and shelter trees. Given that the primary driver of increased wild populations is the availability of good food which in turn stimulates reproduction, koala populations will thrive.  

So why do governments allow large areas of agricultural land to be afforested with commercial Tasmanian bluegum plantations in areas which are known to be within existing koala habitats?    

What advice did they seek to allow any planning and management of the increase in population? Although significant numbers have been translocated in Victoria, these projects do not have a high success rate. 

What are the genetic implications of the sterilisation programs? How will the government ensure a viable gene pool?

This dramatic increase in koala numbers claimed by these two governments is now the raison d’etre for major sterilisation programs. In Adelaide, according to wildlife carers, the SA Government has been dragging female koalas out of their trees and sterilising both mother and female joey – around 400 annually – for a number of years.

Yet there are no current scientifically acceptable population estimates. The fires and drought, according to wildlife carers have wiped out at least 50% of the SA mainland population. The rehabilitation and recovery of the surviving population may now be at risk as there is no data on how many surviving females are sterilised. 

There are no plans at any level of state or Federal governments that protect specific habitats or numbers to ensure the survival of the species in the event of an ecological catastrophe. Plenty of warnings have been delivered and ignored.

In Victoria, there’s simply no population estimate. Australians for Animals Inc pursued an FOI request with the Victorian Government for an entire year, attempting to get information on koala numbers. Information that is available has been split up into regional areas with no readily available or archival data on numbers.

Victoria's record in koala management is appalling. In late 2013 and early 2014, 700 koalas were secretly culled under the Napthine Liberal Government. Translocation and sterilisation continue to be utilised in spite of evidence from an unpublished study from Parks Victoria, which suggests a 90% mortality rate in groups of koalas moved to habitats that contain different food trees. 

In other words, the management of koalas in every relevant state is a complete stuff-up leaving koalas at risk of national extinction. A similar fate awaits remaining surviving wildlife species. The ongoing drought and intense bushfires have pushed much of our wildlife past the tipping point.

It’s very clear that the only way the Australian environment and its unique species will survive this holocaust is through the establishment of a highly skilled well funded independent scientific authority that is hands-on at every level of government. Any recommendations and recovery plans should over-ride government or policy decisions which are to the detriment of a burned, thirsty ancient land reeling from climate change impacts.

The protection of the environment must now be the primary policy of all governments.

Sue Arnold is an investigative journalist. She heads up Australians for Animals NSW Inc and the U.S. California Gray Whale Coalition. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis and Koala Crisis on Facebook here.

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