Koalas: rhetoric versus reality

Erik Veland, Wikimedia Commons

MURRAH, Australia, February 1, 2014—In 2000, when the United States Government listed the koala as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Australian Government was not impressed.

Responding to the listing, the Australian Government’s Environment Minister, Senator Robert Hill, stated, among other things, that the U.S. koala listing had “ignored available scientific data” and failed to acknowledge State and Territory legislation protecting the species. Senator Hill also said the US had misrepresented the status of the species, the listing was “superfluous to wildlife management activities” and, would “not contribute to the conservation of the species in Australia.”

In 2011, the Australian Government listed koalas in part of their range as vulnerable. However, the available scientific data suggests this determination misrepresents the species in ways the U.S. Government did not.

Koalas evolved over many millions of years. When humans first arrived, around 60,000 years ago, there were at least two and possibly three larger koala species as well as the surviving species (P. cinereus). Fossil records indicate the extinction of what some call the “giant koalas” (generally about a third larger in size than P. cinereus), and Australian mega-fauna generally, coincided with Aboriginal practices of hunting and burning.

Like the koalas, many of the extinct species–the largest weighing about a tonne–were specialized leaf-eaters. Aboriginal burning would have changed soil chemistry, greatly depleted the volume and range of fire-sensitive flora species, and promoted the growth of grasses and eucalypts that tend to encourage fire.

The outcome was a move away from ecosystems where soils were constantly enriched with nutrients recycled by animals to a much poorer system. Aboriginals went on to sustain themselves and one koala species for many thousands of years, although lessons are still to be learned about how they achieved ecological equilibrium.

In 1770, “Terra Nullius” or Australia was “discovered” closely followed by the European invasion.

On the far south coast of New South Wales (NSW), coastal settlement was soon established around whaling, although the first settlers to take up agriculture arrived in the 1830s, after finding a trafficable passage down the escarpment from the tablelands.

By this stage, most of the Aboriginal population had been decimated by foreign diseases. Koalas, no longer constrained by hunting, were making a comeback in primary habitat. It took the new settlers about 40 years to clear most of this habitat, although during this time koala numbers continued to climb to the point where a fur industry was established to exploit their numbers. This all ended in the early 1900s, when koalas in agricultural areas were found dead and dying at the bases of their trees. Koalas have never returned to these areas.

Moving on to the 1950s, when foresters, after decades of selective logging in secondary koala habitat on steeper land with poorer soils, perceived a lack of vigor in tree growth. They theorized that clear-felling the forests over a period of 40 years would result in a more productive re-growth forest.

According to this theory, clear-felling and burning forests is also supposed to benefit koalas, but after decades maintaining this position and insisting that koala numbers had not declined, in 2012 the NSW government finally acknowledged there is only one small remaining koala population in forests on the NSW far south coast.

From an ecological perspective, these koalas are the remnants of the South East Corner Bio-region (SECB) population. The closest known genetically similar koalas are in the Strzelecki Ranges, 400 kilometers to the southeast in Victoria.

What the Aboriginals managed to sustain were the many fauna species that maintained soil fertility and forest health. Concurrent with European clearing, logging and increased burning was the introduction of feral predators, particularly foxes and cats. These factors led to the local and regional extinction of many native species. We can now be certain that what foresters first observed as signs of long-term soil degradation was the beginning of the decline of koalas and forests.

The Australian Government’s koala listing is based on state boundaries, cutting the SECB in half and leaving the management of these last koalas up to the NSW State Government. This is where most of the problems lie, because State government legislation does not include an understanding of soils or the impacts of land degradation on forests and koalas from soil mismanagement.

The challenge for the community over the past twenty years has been to stop logging and increase awareness of both the threats to koalas and methods to address those threats. Many community members have been arrested and prosecuted attempting to protect koalas and their habitat.

Yet we can be certain that the future of koalas and humans is closely linked, because soils are literally the “crucible of life” for both species.

Soil degradation has been described as the crack in the crucible that allows the elixir of life to escape and Government rhetoric will not patch that crack. What is required is management focused on addressing the issues. While this will take a long time, ultimately, all species will benefit.

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