Koalas in Victoria: a story of decades of contempt from governments, mass deaths, secret culls, deforestation, habitat degradation, wildlife crime, and frustrated citizens taking matters into their own hands.
By Janine Duffy, President Koala Clancy Foundation
For 20 years I was a tour guide for international wildlife tourists. It was joy. When a koala was sighted, the collective feeling was: adoration. The world adores koalas, on a level that is hard to describe. Listen to Independent Senator David Pocock’s story of his first koala:
Then for 10 years as a leader for local volunteers, the sight of a koala always inspired: love and pride. Australians love koalas.
But for years as a koala advocate speaking to Victorian state government, it pains me how often ‘koala’ inspired: Contempt.
Forbearance, with a sigh and rolling of eyes.
Not all Victorian state politicians and public servants despise koalas. There are many, many good people in government working as hard as they can for nature. But the environment portfolio as a rule has a toxic relationship with Victorian koalas.
The Victorian Minister for the Environment Lily D’Ambrosio has been very careful to decline invitations to speak on the subject of koalas, often referring questions to government spokespeople. But her suggestion on Facebook to name a very large French Island koala “covfefe” – a reference to Donald Trump – was insulting.
The following excerpt from a 2008 paper by Peter Menkhorst, the man who has co-ordinated koala policy & management for the Victorian government since 2006, sums up the problem:
“The Koala .. is amongst the most widely recognised and loved animals in the world. Its beguiling appearance and apparently docile nature result in a level of attraction and affection afforded to few other wild animals. The annual benefit of this attraction to the Australian economy, via the role of the Koala as a tourism icon, was estimated in 1996 to total $1.1 billion. Yet, it is not widely understood that, in parts of southern Australia, the Koala is responsible for one of the most intractable wildlife management problems, consuming a significant proportion of the wildlife management budgets of the Victorian and South Australian Governments”
It’s the koala’s fault, obviously. The koalas’ fault, not ours, that ‘wildlife management budgets’ are too low, and that wildlife has to be ‘managed’ because we nearly obliterated them in the past.
In government buildings, I’ve heard koalas dismissed as stupid, heard them called “a plague”, heard over and over how Victorian koalas’ low genetic diversity (caused by us driving them to near extinction) makes them less worthy of protection. To hear how they are abundant everywhere in Victoria – while I watch a koala population fall by half in a decade – but we need not care about them because there’s tonnes of them. That the state government organisation declaring them abundant haven’t funded any koala population studies for 20 years doesn’t matter. Last time they checked koalas were everywhere. Nothing has changed for wildlife in 20 years of megafires, drought and heatwaves, has it?
Menkhorst goes on to say:
“The dichotomy in the reality and perception of the conservation status of the Koala, and the value of the Koala as a ‘flagship species’, has generated fierce debate and distracted wildlife managers and concerned members of the public from tackling the important issues facing the Koala, for example continuing incremental loss of trees and habitat fragmentation.”
Now, fair’s fair, this paper was 2008. It is possible that the attitude of the author and his staff has changed since then. But attitudes take a long time to change, especially when they are convenient.
To Victorian state government, koalas are still seen as a “problem child”.
A problem because Victorian government lack of management of the Cape Otway koala population has caused koalas to die publicly, and the media has showed it to the world. Government doesn’t like to be publicly criticised like that. But they could have avoided criticism by taking action. After all, it had happened before at: Wilsons Promontory 1905-1910, French Island 1923-present, Phillip Island 1941-1978, Quail Island 1944-1945, Sandy Point 1985-2000, Snake Island 1992-present, Tower Hill 1996-2003, Framlingham 1997-1999, Mt Eccles 1999-present, Raymond Island 2004.
Koalas Are A Problem because wildlife carers, vets and scientists have been begging the Victorian government for years to pro-actively protect overabundant koala populations and their ecosystems. If the Victorian government had listened to such pleas, the abovementioned media storm would not have occurred. Sure, it costs money. But the government gets a staggering $1.5billion from Victorian National Parks annually. They have money for brown coal, gas exploration and for helping mining companies to rehabilitate the land they degraded.
A problem because koalas in Blue Gum plantations have been killed and injured by unregulated bulldozers, and concerned people made it public. If the Victorian government had regulated these operators earlier and then enforced their own laws earlier, this may not have happened.
Koalas Are A Problem because the plantation timber industry is taking its lead from VicForests – the government-owned forestry company – and clearly that’s a mistake. VicForests log the habitat of endangered species all the time, even when they know the animals are right there. They admit to killing koalas. Then they get annoyed when the globally-recognised sustainable timber authority FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) refuses to accredit them at the most basic level. So VicForests try some bullying and insult-flinging, but the FSC stands firm. In addition, the government department DEWLP was found to be ‘neither a respected nor an effective regulator’ by an independent review.
Note: if you search “VicForests court case” you will find dozens of cases against the Victorian government-owned logging company. WOTCH, Friends of Leadbeaters Possum, Environment East Gippsland, Kinglake Friends of the Forest, Warburton Environment all have cases all the way to the Supreme Court. Some are won, some are lost, but importantly – the environmental groups can’t get a case to court without very solid grounds. These are not cashed-up multinationals, these are tiny not-for-profits run mostly by volunteers. The work they do in getting these cases heard is heroic. This is an interesting summary of one case.
Listen to Senator Janet Rice speaking in the Senate about how private citizens are being forced to take on the Victorian government:
A problem because scientists and conservation groups keep asking for money to research koala populations in parts of Victoria where locals are reporting that koalas have declined significantly. But this sort of research could lead to more funding being required, and the government has plans to use that money to subsidise the timber industry.
Koalas Are A Problem because koalas are now listed as endangered in most of their range, and so everyone cares and wants action, even here in Victoria where koalas are ‘so abundant’. The Victorian government has to keep repeating itself and explaining to the public that they should stop caring about koalas.
A problem because koalas, though clearly subject to a huge range of environmental and management issues, are not of a high enough priority for the Victorian government to update a Koala Management Strategy written in 2004. The much-awaited new strategy was expected in August 2022 (nearly 20 years later!!), but at the time of writing, it still hasn’t appeared.
Koalas Are A Problem because so many koalas died as a result of bushfires in 2019-2020, 2015-16, 2014, 2013, 2011, 2009, 2006-07, 2003. But of course, they are so numerous, and their abundance hasn’t changed since 2004 so why worry?
A problem because wildlife carers – all volunteers – are trying to deal with increasing numbers of koalas needing help because of state government policies. These wonderful people are loved by the public, get heaps of media, and don’t ask for anything for themselves. But they beg for action to be taken on climate, logging, research, and enforcement of laws against cruelty.
Koalas Are A Problem because a group of koalas in the Strezlecki Ranges/South Gippsland were found to be genetically distinct. This created a need to learn more and monitor their population in an area full of timber plantations. No Victorian government support was forthcoming, so it was left to Friends of the Earth, Friends of Gippsland Bush and Landcare South Gippsland to begin and fund surveys.
Koalas Are A Problem because koalas, being so gorgeous and famous, and so successful in Victoria, made so much money for the state through tourism, but then irritating people kept asking for a tiny percentage of those millions be spent on their protection.
It doesn’t seem to be a lot to ask really. Some of the $18million given to bail out economically-unviable VicForests in 2021, or the $20million given to them in 2020, would go a long way towards research. With $18 million we could probably have 30 to 300 scientific research projects going on right now – exploring the health and population size of koalas around Ballarat, Brisbane Ranges, You Yangs, Strathbogie Ranges, Bunyip, South Gippsland, Southwest Victoria, Buchan, Mallacoota, Raymond Island, Cape Otway, Murray region, Alpine…. as well as the research that’s just started in Moorabool (commonwealth and local Moorabool Landcare funded), Gelantipy (Deakin University, WWF and University of Sydney funded), and Mornington Peninsula (Mornington Peninsula Koala Conservation, council and Federation University funded).
We could have a privately-owned eucalyptus plantation system that we could be proud of, with high standards of koala protection, extensive native habitat plantings surrounding plantations, fencing and wildlife crossings over roads, and support for wildlife carers.
It’s not the koalas fault that biodiversity is catastrophically underfunded in Victoria. The fault lies with Victorian governments who have chosen to ignore their responsibilities – to animal welfare and biodiversity, to the world, and to the people of Victoria.
Want to help Victorian koalas? Attend our rally at Dan Andrews Noble Park office on Friday 18 November 2022. Register here: https://www.eventbrite.com.au/e/koala-rally-koala-leaders-unite-to-demand-protection-for-victorian-koalas-registration-457737634587
Menkhorst, P. (2008). Hunted, marooned, re-introduced, contracepted: A history of koala management in Victoria. Australian Zoologist, 34, 73–92. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269932270_Hunted_marooned_re-introduced_contracepted_A_history_of_Koala_management_in_Victoria
Wedrowicz, F., Mosse, J., Wright, W. et al. Genetic structure and diversity of the koala population in South Gippsland, Victoria: a remnant population of high conservation significance. Conserv Genet 19, 713–728 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-018-1049-8