Koalas in blue gum plantations– a travesty in Australia's backyard

This koala was found wandering in the slash on an active harvesting site, no mum, no home, terrified.  He has nowhere to go and little food.

Back in 2013, we first told you about the shocking plight of koalas injured and killed in blue gum harvesting operations in south-west Victoria and South Australia. 

Since then, IFAW has been campaigning for tighter rules that will help to protect koalas from harvesting operations.  Earlier this year, the Victorian Government finally introduced its long-awaited Koala Management Regulations. While we hope these regulations bring about improvements like koala plans and koala spotters on every logging site, there is still much to do.

So how did successive governments allow one of Australia’s most iconic animals to be threatened by the timber industry?

In fairness, no-one ever expected koalas to inhabit 160,000 hectares of blue gum plantations when they were set up in the late 1990s. But to everyone’s initial surprise, koalas started to move into the plantations, largely because they were driven from their surrounding habitat. They took advantage of the blue gums which offered secure feeding and sleeping trees for their growing population. For a time, the koalas thrived in their new blue gum homes. 

Today, population estimates range between 0-8 koalas per hectare. But living in a plantation only offers temporary refuge, as the trees will eventually be harvested and the koalas left without a habitat or food source. 

Today, displaced koalas search for food in the surrounding landscape; this puts massive pressure on the small amount of surrounding roadside vegetation, private and indigenous land, parks and reserves. Some animals are starving so much that they have been seen grazing on the stumps that are left after harvesting, something they would never naturally do.

So what can be done?

Between 2013 and 2015 during a series of stakeholder meetings a set of voluntary guidelines were adopted by industry.  They were introduced to industry under the banner of the GTRPC (Green Triangle Regional Plantation Committee). But they were just that – guidelines. Companies could choose whether or not to adopt them, formulate their own more stringent guidelines or water them down. Government started asking companies to report incidences of injured and dead koalas during harvesting. Again this wasn’t mandatory so not all companies did.

A Freedom of Information request to supply records of koala deaths and injuries was denied last year. However, the Department of Environment later confirmed in a letter that ‘some companies have reported incidents’ and that there were ‘157 koala incidents of injury or death reported until October 2015’, admitting that these incident numbers were ‘clearly higher than the department would like to have occur’. But we suspect this number was only the tip of the iceberg.

Some logging companies have tried to do the right thing, going a step further and introducing koala spotters of their own accord. But without a complete and consistent industry approach, no real change was going to happen.

The government finally took some decisive action earlier this year and introduced regulations to provide further protection to koalas from these operations. Harvesting companies now have to apply for a permit to ‘disturb wildlife’, produce koala plans and have koala spotters on site. While IFAW welcomes these well-intentioned regulations and hopes that they will bring improvements, they sadly fall short in a few critical areas.

One glaring and crucial omission is that there is no requirement for companies to retain or provide any permanent habitat for these koalas to live in once their trees have been cut down. This is crazy. Where are they meant to go?

While this tragic situation is not industry’s fault, companies need to take some responsibility. They have a moral if not legal obligation to offset some of the damage they are causing, albeit unintentional, by investing some of their lucrative profits into providing permanent habitat and koala corridors so that these displaced animals have somewhere to live and somewhere to go. Is this too much to ask?

This has become not only an animal welfare crisis but a massive landscape conservation issue that has to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Harvesting has ramped up with more companies than ever operating. If decisive action is not taken now, the situation is only going to get worse.

Local voluntary wildlife carers and vets struggle to cope with the daily influx of injured koalas. It is hugely time-consuming and costly to treat and rehabilitate them, with carers having to travel long distances just to collect leaf to feed them. The number of animals coming into care is totally unsustainable. And those animals that are successfully rehabilitated have very little safe habitat to return to. One wildlife carer broke down as she told me how a koala let out an unusual and unfamiliar low pitched moan. The koala was vocalising his fear that he was familiar with the area, but his home was gone. 

With the landscape overburdened, volunteers overworked and koalas left homeless and dying, something just has to change.

As koala populations in NSW and Queensland are being decimated, ironically in spite of everything, the Victorian koala population is the only one that is thriving. But not for long… There will be no future for Victoria’s koalas if this blue gum plantation issue is allowed to continue.  In fact if action is not taken now, it is generally accepted that if climate change continues on its predicted path, the Southern populations of koalas will be the last remaining in Australia.

PLEASE wherever you are in the world ASK Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio to help Victoria’s koalas.

--JS

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