Analysis of The Victorian Koala Management Strategy

koala victoria

It seems that the final Victorian Koala Management Strategy (2023 VKMS) might finally be released “in the coming weeks”, according to the Chief Conservation Regulator, Kate Gavens on 17 March 2023. The 2022-2023 Vic state budget has committed “$3.309 million over 2 years to support the delivery of actions under the strategy.”

UPDATE 4 June 2024: the National Koala Monitoring Program has released updated koala population estimates for Victoria and South Australia showing that they believe there to be 129,000 to 286,000 koalas total in those two states, based on CSIRO ground-truthed data. This is half what the Victorian government claims for Victoria alone, based on computer modelling.

UPDATE 6 May 2023: The final Victorian Koala Management Strategy has finally been released. Find the final 2023 VKMS here: https://www.wildlife.vic.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0032/633578/VKMS_FINAL_May_2023.pdf

The Victorian Koala Management Strategy is intended to provide guidance towards achieving the aims and objectives of the National Koala Conservation Strategy. Though the koala is not listed as threatened in Victoria, the species is the only living member of it’s family, and is one of Australia’s most recognised wildlife species, that contributes to the economy as a tourism icon.

Quick background points:

The final Victorian Koala Management Strategy was promised in August 2022. It was finally released in May 2023, 19 years between strategies.

  • The 2023 VKMS will replace the 2004 Victorian Koala Management Strategy (2004 VKMS).
  • $3.3million is allocated in the 22/23 state budget for a strategy that still hasn’t been released in April 2023.
  • Comments below relate to the draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy (draft strategy). Not much has changed in the final.

The draft strategy’s vision is:
“Victoria’s koala populations and habitat are secure, healthy and sustainable”.

The aim of the 2004 VKMS was:
“To ensure that viable wild populations of the Koala persist wherever suitable habitat occurs throughout their natural range in Victoria”.

Comments on the draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy:

Executive summary. More details on each point below.

1. Every Australian state that has koalas has a current koala strategy, except Victoria.

2. The draft strategy effectively ignores major threats to Victorian Koalas

3. The draft strategy admits that it is based on a koala population estimate that is biased, inconsistent and uncertain.

4. The draft strategy is defensive about community concern for koalas and money raised for their welfare.

5. The draft strategy is obsessed with overabundance.

6. In every other state koala strategy, theme #1 is koala habitat conservation, except in Victoria. In Victoria’s draft strategy it is theme #6.

7. The draft strategy calls for many of the same actions that were called for in the 2004 strategy, and were not acted on then.

8. More than half Victoria’s Koalas are threatened by Blue Gum plantations, but there are no solutions.

Both the 2004 and 2022 (draft) strategies can be found here: https://www.wildlife.vic.gov.au/our-wildlife/koalas

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1. Every state that has koalas has a current koala strategy, except Victoria.

Every state koala strategy (see list below) is updated/expected to be updated every 5-7 years, except in Victoria. In Victoria the 2004 VKMS took 19 years+ to update.

In fact, the 2004 VKMS called for an update in 2009, on page 20 (see below). That did not occur.

excerpt from 2004 Victorian Koala Management Strategy, pg 20

SE Qld Koala Conservation Strategy 2020-2025
NSW Koala strategy 2022-2026, replaced 2018-2021 strategy
SA Koala Conservation & Management Strategy 2016, to be reviewed after 7 years (2023)

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2. The draft strategy effectively ignores major threats to Victorian Koalas

Though it is well documented that Victorian Koalas face threats from climate change, land use pressures, droughts & wildfires, and declining nutritional quality of eucalyptus (McAlpine 2015, pg 230-231), the draft strategy barely touches on these threats and provides no mitigation actions.

Climate Change & Wildfires is relegated to theme #8, and is covered by 1 double page.

Drought is barely mentioned.

Land use pressures are covered under Habitat Conservation, theme #6, but even here 5 out of 9 paragraphs discuss overbrowsing.

Declining nutritional quality due to climate change is mentioned twice only. Though this is the main reason that the IUCN have listed koalas as one of the 10 species most affected by climate change.

Vehicle strikes and dog attacks are main causes of mortality and injuries and the two most common reasons for Koala rescues. The survival rate for koalas struck by vehicles is extremely low and yet these threats are only mentioned three times in the draft strategy and no mitigation actions are offered.

Linear infrastructure such as roads and rail lines are major threats to koalas. They destroy koala habitat during construction and cause habitat fragmentation. This threat is not mentioned at all in the draft strategy and no mitigation actions are offered.

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3. The draft strategy admits that it is based on an estimate of koala population that is biased, inconsistent and uncertain.

The Strategy is based on a 2020 estimate that the Victorian koala population is around 459,865. This figure was reached through a computer model, the results of which were not peer-reviewed. This is very different to the 2024 National Koala Monitoring Program estimate, based on CSIRO ground-truthed data, of 129,000 to 286,000 total in Victoria and South Australia. It is also very different to Adams-Hosking (2016) Use of expert knowledge to elicit population trends for the Koala, the only other peer-reviewed estimate that was available in 2020, which estimated Victoria: 183,000 and SA: 33,000.

The draft strategy admits that the data used to estimate the koala population was heavily biased to regions where koalas are overabundant, and it admits that for 5 out of 6 DEECA regions there were few scattered counts or no counts at all. (pg 24)

excerpt from current draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy, pg 24

The Koala Abundance Model report shows that the coefficient of variation (the uncertainty) is very high across most of Victoria. (Heard & Ramsay Modelling Koala Abundance across Victoria, Figure 7 pg 20)

The authors of the Koala Abundance Model advise caution in using the estimate. (Heard & Ramsay, pg 25)

It should be noted that 1,104 of the 1,494 most reliable counts used were supplied by one timber plantation company, in one region. (Heard & Ramsay, pg 5)

Perhaps our greatest concern is that this Koala Abundance Model is not transparent or repeatable. The model predictions (the data) will not be released to the public, so can never be checked by other scientists, or by citizen science groups.

Sadly, this koala abundance model would have been far more accurate if the Victorian Government had acted on its own recommendations in the 2004 VKMS. (Issue 2, pg 10)

excerpt from 2004 Victorian Koala Management Strategy, pg 10

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4. The draft strategy is defensive about community concern for koalas and money raised for their welfare.

This draft strategy devotes an entire theme to Community Perception, though it’s not clear how that theme relates to the draft strategy’s vision. It is clear that, to the Victorian government, koalas are an inconvenience and a complication. (pg 30)

excerpt from current draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy, pg 30

In a strategy that doesn’t seem to have room to elaborate on major threats like drought, or declining nutritional quality of eucalyptus, or the effects of native forest logging, it’s hard to understand the relevance of the following politicised paragraph about public donations to koalas Australia-wide: (pg 30)

excerpt from current draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy, pg 30

Another paragraph deals with the cost of managing koalas (pg 11). At $4million over 22 years, or $180,000 a year, it seems to be a drop in the ocean compared to the $20billion the Victorian government spent on consultants in just one year or the fact that one Grade 7 public servant in Victoria earns from $175,000 to $238,000 every year.

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5. The draft strategy is obsessed with overabundance.

The issue of koala overabundance dominates the entire document. Yet overabundance only occurs in a few koala populations near the state’s coast.

South Australia also has “overabundant” koalas, yet their koala strategy deals with the issue in one page. In the Vic draft strategy the issue takes up 8.5 pages, and is theme #2. In fact it is mentioned in almost every chapter. The terms “overabundance”, “overabundant” and “over-browsing” are used 64 times throughout the document.

Climate change and bushfire together warrant just 2 pages.

For those koalas living outside the overabundant areas, and for those of us working with koalas in those areas, there is very little in this strategy to guide us.

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6. In every state koala strategy, issue #1 is koala habitat conservation, except in Victoria. In Victoria it is #6.

Koala habitat conservation and/or protection is way down the list of priorities in Victoria. This important issue warrants just 3 pages, and 5 out of the 9 paragraphs deal with habitat loss caused by koalas overbrowsing!

There is no mention in this chapter of the effects on koalas of native forest logging, plantation forest logging, or bushfires.

There are no mitigation measures proposed. The only actions recommended are mapping and the development of a decision support tool.

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7. The draft strategy calls for actions that were called for in the 2004 VKMS, and were not acted upon.

20 of the 35 actions recommended in the 2004 VKMS were not effectively acted upon at any time over the last 19 years. See Appendix for a list of those actions. Note, we are not advocating these actions take place, we are simply noting that they were recommended in 2004 by the government themselves, and the government did not act on their own recommendations.

Many of these actions have been recycled into the new 2023 strategy.

How does this government expect us to trust them to take any actions on the final 2023 VKMS, when they have not acted on the recommendations of the previous strategy?

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8. More than half Victoria’s Koalas threatened by Blue Gum plantations, but there are no solutions.

The draft strategy notes that current policy does not consider the long-term impacts to koalas and habitat from koala dispersal following harvesting. It goes on to say that plantations are likely to increase and that the problem is almost certain to get worse. Yet it offers no solutions at all, and the recommended actions are to find better technology to find koalas and understand their movements.

A large amount of this habitat is due to be harvested, and will continue on a short rotation every 10-15 years, which means this problem will not go away. How will better technology deal with the problem of koalas breeding in plantations when they will ultimately be displaced, left to starve or die from road trauma.

It is worthwhile noting that, while the new modelling estimates 46,917 koalas are living in plantations, it also states that 210,277 koalas live in the Barwon South West region in native forest. It is possibly even higher, as in 2017, some estimated that there were between 200,000 and 400,000 koalas living in the southwest region.

Essentially, more than half of the entire Victorian koala population is about to be displaced or threatened by plantation harvesting. This will soon cause Victorian koala population numbers to decline, yet the strategy still claims that Victorian koalas are thriving.

The draft strategy states that translocation of koalas in the south west is not supported due to the high numbers of koalas needing translocation, and that there is currently no cost-effective management techniques that are acceptable to the community. So that suggests that DEECA’s current actions for koalas living in blue gums, as detailed on page 11 & 12 are:

  • Unacceptable (culling), or
  • Too expensive and won’t continue (translocations, fertility control), or
  • No action at all (let them die from starvation and road trauma), or
  • All of the above.

What is a government strategy for, if it simply outlines the problem and provides no solutions?

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Original compiled and written by Janine Duffy, Koala Clancy Foundation, with support from Jessica Robertson, Ballarat Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation. Updates by Janine Duffy.

Thankyou to Dr Christine Hosking, University of Queensland, for helping me understand the population modelling.

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Media Contact

Janine Duffy

president@koalaclancyfoundation.org.au

0427 808 747

REFERENCES:

Adams‐Hosking, C., McBride, M.F., Baxter, G., Burgman, M., De Villiers, D., Kavanagh, R., Lawler, I., Lunney, D., Melzer, A., Menkhorst, P. and Molsher, R., 2016. Use of expert knowledge to elicit population trends for the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). Diversity and Distributions, 22(3), pp.249-262. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ddi.12400

McAlpine, C., Lunney, D., Melzer, A., Menkhorst, P., Phillips, S., Phalen, D., Ellis, W., Foley, W., Baxter, G., De Villiers, D. and Kavanagh, R., 2015. Conserving koalas: A review of the contrasting regional trends, outlooks and policy challenges. Biological Conservation, 192, pp.226-236. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2015.09.020

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APPENDIX:

List of 20 of the 35 actions recommended in the 2004 VKMS were not effectively acted upon at any time over the last 19 years. Note, we are not advocating these actions take place, we are simply noting that they were recommended in 2004 by the government themselves, and the government did not act on their own recommendations.

  • Action 1: • Officers of State and Local Government agencies will ensure that the habitat needs of the Koala are addressed through the application of all relevant vegetation protection and vegetation management policies.
  • Action 2: • Ensure that Koala management is adequately considered during the development of Biodiversity Action Plans, Park Management Plans, Forest Management Area Plans, and during reviews of the Codes of Forest Management Practices for both Crown land and freehold land. People writing or revising such plans must be aware of the habitat requirements of the Koala in their local area, and must ensure that these are accounted for in the plans. Improving linkages between remnant forest and woodland patches is particularly important for the Koala.
  • Action 3: • Establish a system for reporting and curating observations of Koalas feeding, including accurate identification of tree species, to gain a more complete understanding of Koala food tree preferences.
  • Action 4: • Encourage all staff of DSE, Parks Victoria and the general public to report sightings of Koalas to the Atlas of Victorian Wildlife.
  • Action 5: • Local Government, in partnership with the Australian Koala Foundation, should undertake Koala Habitat Atlas mapping in key Local Government Areas. Priorities for Local Government Areas to be assessed should be based on degree of pressure for development in areas occupied by Koalas.
  • Action 6: • Once Koala habitat mapping is completed the Local Government should transfer the information to Environmental Significance Overlays that define, rank and map Koala habitat.
  • Action 7: • Conduct comparisons of a variety of Koala census techniques in a range of forest types to compare their accuracy and cost.
  • Action 8: • Develop a standardised technique (or techniques appropriate to broad habitat types) to estimate Koala population numbers that can be implemented by trained agency staff or volunteers, and use this technique to monitor Koala numbers at sites where active management is occurring or desirable, and also where a population decline is postulated.
  • Action 17: • Initiate a detailed survey of genetic diversity, using microsatellite and mitochondrial DNA markers, across South Gippsland, from Western Port to Sale and from the Princess Highway to Refuge Cove, Wilsons Promontory.
  • Action 18: • Facilitate research into the relationship between the low genetic diversity of Victorian Koalas and population fitness.
  • Action 19: • If surveys of genetic diversity in South Gippsland indicate that the remnant genotype is geographically restricted within that area, investigate the practicality and value of artificially disseminating the diverse genotype(s) more widely through the Victorian population.
  • Action 20: • Depending on the outcome of Actions 16 and 18, investigate the suitability of the Wonnangatta Valley as Koala habitat. If it is deemed suitable, use Koalas from South Gippsland to establish a population there by translocation. Obtain advice from Koala geneticists on an appropriate number of founder animals, having regard for possible impacts on the source populations.
  • Action 21: • Facilitate the collection and analysis of DNA samples from other areas of Victoria where remnant genes may persist. Such areas include East Gippsland, Stony Rises [roughly between Colac and Cobden] and Strathbogie Plateau.
  • Action 25: • Initiate a widespread community education program stressing requirements for living with Koalas in suburban environments, rehabilitating habitat for Koalas in rural areas, and the need for responsible dog ownership.
  • Action 26: • Liaise with VicRoads to encourage Koala-friendly road design in key Koala habitat.
  • Action 29: • Encourage agency staff and members of the public to report sightings of Koalas, including road-killed animals, to the Atlas of Victorian Wildlife database.
  • Action 30: • Encourage members of the public to report signs of impending over-browsing damage to local DSE or Parks Victoria staff.
  • Action 31: • Encourage community-based population monitoring in key areas such as suburban or township land, and in parks and reserves where a friends group is active. Areas where population declines are thought to be occurring should also be targeted. Provide guidelines on the most appropriate methods for population monitoring.
  • Action 32: • Develop partnerships with Aboriginal organisations to foster Aboriginal participation in the management of Koalas and their habitat in areas of cultural significance for Aboriginal people.
  • Action 35: • Conduct a thorough review of the strategy and progress towards its implementation five years after its adoption by the Victorian Government, ie. in 2009.

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