A new alliance has been launched to protect the koala. The National Koala Alliance (NKA) – which is a non-profit network of wildlife carers, rescuers, advocates, conservationists, and researchers – chose World Habitat Day for its launch and pledged to provide a strong, united and cohesive voice for koala conservation and protection.
The NKA says koalas are threatened from all angles: habitat loss, disease, predation by domestic dogs, and conflict with human activities.
Road construction, industrial expansion, and urban development are all having a devastating effect on koalas, who eat mainly eucalyptus leaves, and only from certain species of gum tree.
Thousands of the animals are dying as a result of car hits and dog attacks, and bushfires kill thousands more.
It is impossible to say how many koalas are dying from chlamydia, but the disease is a main cause of fatalities. Chlamydia can cause blindness and reproductive tract disease, which can lead to infertility.
A koala with chlamydial disease.
NKA coordinator Greg Johnstone says koalas are in such a critical situation that a national approach to their conservation is now needed. “The koala has an intrinsic value to our ecosystems, our economy, and to us as a nation that is irreplaceable.
“Our one goal is to ensure that koalas survive and thrive in the wild throughout their remaining natural distribution.”
Koalas are an important flagship species, Johnstone says. “If koalas are dying, it indicates that other species are in trouble, too. Many other creatures depend on the same habitat that koalas do. Approximately fifty percent of threatened species in Australia occur within koala habitat areas.”
Native wildlife campaigner at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Josey Sharrad, who is a founding member of the NKA, said: “We believe that without urgent, united action, koala populations will, one by one, suffer local extinctions until we’ve lost them all. That would be both a national shame and an international embarrassment. Australia without koalas is unthinkable.”
The animals are already considered to be extinct in Avalon, north of Sydney.
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Many koalas are sustaining horrific and often fatal injuries on logging plantations and one of the main focuses for the NKA is lobbying the Victorian government to implement a mandatory code of practice on blue gum plantations to prevent koala deaths and injuries.
Koalas feed on leaves in the plantations, but lose that habitat once the trees are harvested. On some plantations, there aren’t even spotters to check there are no koalas in the trees before those trees are felled. Huge harvesting and haulage machines are used and wood chipping is often done on site.
Woodchip from the blue gums is exported for paper production and Japan and China are the main buyers.
There is, meanwhile, serious controversy over the repeated government culling of koalas in southwestern Victoria.
In 2013 and 2014, the authorities euthanised nearly 700 koalas in the Cape Otway area, about 230 kilometres southwest of Melbourne. They said they were responding to the problems caused by the overbrowsing of manna gum trees, which has stripped the trees and left many koalas starving.
There was widespread outrage when news about the culls finally came out in media reports in March this year. Some conservationists said the problem was loss of habitat, and possibly disease in the gum trees, and argued that killing koalas was not the solution.
There was a further cull last month. There are conflicting reports about how many koalas were euthanised. Some reports put the number at six (of 32 koalas checked) as of September 23).
The authorities say the killing of the Otways koalas was not culling, but was euthanasia of very sick animals. They deny that koalas were killed in secret in 2013 and 2014.
New South Wales
In New South Wales, habitat destruction is the NKA’s main focus. NKA member Lorraine Vass, who is president of “Friends of the Koala”, based in East Lismore, says koalas everywhere are being pushed to the brink.
“If we don’t protect these very special creatures we are in danger of losing them not just in New South Wales, but in other states as well,” she said.
Vass (pictured left) says koalas need to be protected urgently from the catastrophic consequences of New South Wales government policies. She says that infrastructure development such as the Pacific Highway upgrade is just one example. The conditionally approved Section 10 of the highway is threatening the survival of a nationally significant population of about 200 koalas, Vass says.
Biodiversity legislation is being watered down, Vass says, and koala habitat is being destroyed by coastal peri-urban development and other harmful activities such as industrial-scale logging in the state’s forests, poorly regulated private native forestry, and mining.
“Right across New South Wales the Baird government is simply abrogating its responsibility and turning a blind eye to keeping our remaining koalas safe.”
At Liverpool Plains in New South Wales, koalas are at the centre of a court battle about plans for a Chinese coal mine development. The Plains woodlands are an important refuge for wildlife, supporting a sizeable and biologically significant koala population.
The New South Wales government has approved the Shenhua mine, but a local community group, Upper Mooki Landcare, has challenged the approval on the grounds that the government failed to properly consider whether the mine was likely to significantly affect koalas – a threatened species – as required under the law.
The court reserved its judgement about a month ago, and its ruling is awaited.
More than sixty per cent of the native vegetation has already been cleared in the Liverpool Plains area and, if the current legal challenge fails, development of the mine will remove a substantial area of the remaining vegetation, placing the local koala population at risk of extinction.
The plight of the koala nationally
In South Australia, the NKA will be addressing human-koala conflict and combating disease.
The main focus in Queensland is to address the dramatic decrease in the koala population that has resulted from habitat destruction.
The koala has been listed as a vulnerable species in the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, and New South Wales since 2012, but this, the NKA says, has done little to protect them.
When European settlers first arrived in Australia, there were 10 million koalas in the wild. There are now a few hundred thousand at most. A senate inquiry in 2011 was told that there are probably between 50,000 and 100,000.
Over the past 20 years, koala numbers have dropped by forty per cent in Queensland and by a third in New South Wales. In the Pilliga Forest of northwest New South Wales, three-quarters of the koala population has been wiped out since 2000.
Founding NKA member Wanda Grabowski, who is president of Koala Action Inc. (KAI), based in Queensland, says that all the local, state, and national koala management plans produced to date have failed to halt the decline in the koala population. The decline has actually escalated, Grabowski says. “Disease is increasingly the cause of koala admissions into wildlife hospitals in Queensland.”
Grabowski says there is an urgent need for funding for research into chlamydial disease and the koala retrovirus, which is also having a devastating impact on the animals. The KAI recently donated 10,000 AUD to sponsor the laboratory and field work costs of Sharon Nyari, a Sunshine Coast university PhD doctoral candidate who is working on a single-dose chlamydial vaccine.
“Such an advance would have a positive impact on the sustainability of Southeast Qeensland’s koala population,” Grabowski said.
Last year, scientists conducted the first ever field trial of a vaccine against chlamydia in koalas. The trial, which was part of a five-year project, involved koalas roaming in their natural habitat in the Moreton Bay region, north of Brisbane. The koalas were already being tagged and monitored in the area of the Moreton Bay rail project.
The vaccinated animals all showed good immune responses to the vaccine and their chlamydia infection levels were lower than those in the unvaccinated animals.
The sixty koalas – thirty vaccinated and thirty unvaccinated as a control group – were fitted with radio collars and are still being monitored.
It is crucial, Grabowski says, that the right decisions are taken now. “What is done right now by private enterprise and government bodies will either herald the eventual demise of the koala population in the wild or be a step in the right direction and ensure a future for this unique and charismatic faunal emblem.
“Habitat loss and fragmentation forces koalas to the ground in search of food, shelter, mates, and dispersal opportunities and this puts them at risk of being struck by motor vehicles and attacked by domestic, wild, and feral dogs.”
Hope for the future
The NKA grew out of a national koala conference – “Their Future is in our Hands” – held in Port Macquarie in May 2013, during which speakers called for immediate and collaborative action to save the animal.
An unwell koala being fed at the Port Macquarie koala hospital.
The alliance is run by a steering committee, on which each Australian state or territory where koalas occur naturally in the wild is represented. It has a very wide-ranging remit: koala rehabilitation and release, habitat protection, koala research, community empowerment, and political lobbying.
Meghan Halverson (pictured below), who set up Queensland Koala Crusaders (QKC), and is an NKA founding member said: “When people band together and support each other, many hands make lighter work and there is hope for a brighter future. We need to think nationally and act locally.”
Grabowski would agree: “Many hands working together will make challenging the status quo easier and more effective.”
For too long, Halverson says, there has been a fragmentation of ideas and beliefs. “With greater numbers and collaborative efforts, we can inspire and empower others to really make a difference.”
There is hope for the beleaguered koala, Halverson says. “We may have to be more creative and think outside the box, but anything is possible if you believe and persevere. I am seeing an increase in collaborative efforts in koala conservation in Queensland.”
One example, Halverson says, is the way local councils, the community, not-for-profit groups, and university researchers on the Sunshine Coast have been discussing ways to support each other.
Advice for the public
The NKA is urging people to join their local environmental action group and help to plant koala habitat trees and assist in koala rescue and rehabilitation.
The alliance also asks people to protect koalas in their area by ensuring that their dog isn’t roaming at night and to drive with caution, particularly at night, when they are passing through a koala habitat area.
Koala hit by a car. Photo by Charlie Lewis.
Other voices for the koala
The NKA is taking a collaborative approach to koala conservation and protection. Up until now, the only national voice for the koala had been the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), which was formed in 1986.
There are numerous smaller local groups as Moreton Bay Koala Rescue, Fauna Rescue of South Australia, and QKC, but this is the first time that such groups have joined together to create a unified action alliance.
The NKA supports the work being done with Maya, a detection dog trained to sniff out koala droppings. Maya was enlisted by the city council in Logan, south of Brisbane, to help in its efforts to identify koala habitats in the area.
The QKC has donated 1,000 AUD to purchase a GPS tracking collar and equipment to help in the tracking work being done with Maya across the Sunshine Coast, Noosa, and Gympie regions. “We look forward to getting valuable data that will help give us more accurate information about koala populations in Queensland,” Halverson said.
The AKF’s main focus is campaigning for a national Koala Protection Act. The foundation’s chief executive officer, Deborah Tabart says the Act would be a simple, but powerful piece of legislation, similar to the Bald Eagle Act that was passed in America in 1942. Tabart says she has no more faith in the system as it stands. “Every time someone tries to save a piece of koala habitat, the legislation lets them down, and industry wins very time.”
Many of the groups within the NKA are supporting the AKF’s efforts to get a Koala Protection Act brought in. “We need to have a protection Act upheld so that koalas and their habitats are given priority,” Halverson said. “Because this gets in the way of development and progress, it is tricky and requires an all-or-nothing approach. But, if we want to save koalas, then we have to get serious about protecting habitat and speaking up for them.”
In response to the revelations in March about the Otways culls, Tabart said the real problem was gross mismanagement of koala habitat over the past sixty years or more.
“You cannot have it both ways; you either want to protect our national icon and its habitat, and use koalas as ambassadors, or you ruin Australia’s reputation with this disgusting cruelty.”
Tabart says the koalas in Cape Otway were put there more than thirty years ago for tourism purposes, and the repercussions are now obvious. She sees the issue as an underpopulation of trees, not an overpopulation of koalas.
“Koala numbers at Cape Otway are a result of gross mismanagement. The Australian government should hang its head in shame,” Tabart said.
The koalas shouldn’t have been moved to Cape Otway, Tabart says, because the preferred trees for Victorian koalas do not grow well on the soils there.
The government tree-planting initiatives at Cape Otway have focused on planting coastal manna gum and messmate trees, neither of which are primary species for koalas.
The koalas in Cape Otway are extremely sick because they’ve been eating mainly coastal manna gum, and this is a secondary tree species, Tabart says. “Put simply, it’s like a human having no choice but to eat only pumpkin for their whole life.”
She added: “Basically, these koalas have been stuck eating leaves from the wrong trees for thirty years and they’re sick and the trees are sick. Worse still, 93,000 of the same trees have been planted that cannot possibly fix the problem.
“It should have been a complex mix of species and the Victorian government managers just don’t get that. It is truly amazing to me.”
The AKF has made several recommendations to the Victorian government about the koala population in the Otways region, but says their recommendations have been ignored.
Just before the most recent cull, Tabart wrote to the environment minister for Victoria, Lisa Neville, saying the AKF had not been included in any sort of consultation prior to the culling announcement other than a single, random telephone call.
Grabowski says that rescuers and carers in the Otways area say inbreeding in an isolated koala population resulted in genetic and physical deformities. “Euthanasia was the only humane option for many of those animals suffering from debilitating conditions. However, the lack of appropriate habitat and wildlife corridors complicated the situation further.”
The lack of sufficiently healthy koala food trees compromised the health and long-term viability of koalas in the Otways, Grabowski says. “Hopefully the NKA will be able to change the status quo by ensuring that good science, transparency, and accountability are the main management tools used when decisions about koalas are being made.”
Halverson also sees the situation in the Otways as complex. “Animal welfare is an issue here that cannot be ignored. When an animal is suffering, then we do not want to see this continuing, and euthanasia is humane. However, we should also look at what was done to create this situation: translocation without follow-up and monitoring until there was then over-browsing and colony starvations because of the density of the population.”
The Animal Justice Party in Victoria is urging people to contact Lisa Neville to call for more humane solutions to problems it says have been created by humans.
Felled pine forest near Bathurst, Queensland. Photo by Louise O’Brien.
National Koala Alliance
Australian Koala Foundation
Article updated on 13/10/2015 with additional comments from Deborah Tabart.