Victoria announces some protections for koalas in blue gum plantations

Two of 16 orphaned  joeys currently in care at Mosswood Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Shelter SW PHOTO: © Tracey WilsonThe International Fund for Animal Welfare welcomes the recent announcement by the Victorian Government, which introduced standards to protect koalas from being injured, killed and displaced during blue gum harvesting in South West Victoria.

IFAW has campaigned for this change over the last several years and garnered national and international concern following the ABC 7.30 expose report  in July 2013. The report aired after distressed logging workers blew the whistle on the carnage that occurred on a daily basis.

The scale of carnage was hidden from the public eye with little transparency or accountability largely because the incidents occurred on private land.

The Victorian Government estimates between 200,000 – 400,000 koalas live in Victoria’s South West and; their abundance in Victoria is a stark contrast to plummeting numbers in New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland (QLD).

But as their natural habitat dwindles in Victoria, hundreds of koalas have made their homes in the vast swathes of private blue gum plantations. Trees in which the koalas seek refuge are chopped down by the plantation workers. 

There are 130,000 hectares of blue gum plantations in the South West, 80,000 hectares of which are in the ‘koala zone’. Densities of koalas vary, but research estimates conservatively at 2-3 per hectare (in some cases, there have been reports of 8 per hectare!)

Koalas by their nature are elusive and hard to spot with the human eye, spending most of their time sleeping high up in the trees, they are often missed when harvesting machines move in, resulting in injuries, death and displacement.

With so many koalas displaced from their homes and moving across the landscape, wildlife volunteers have reported an increase in koalas who need to be rescued, rehabilitated or often sadly euthanased.

It is not sustainable or realistic for volunteers to provide what is, in effect, a free emergency service, unaided. Government and the blue gum industry need to provide immediate and effective support.

Furthermore, after those koalas are treated and rehabilitated, what safe habitat is there to return to?

None, sadly.

The year following the ABC report, IFAW, along with the National Koala Alliance, urged the Victorian Government to take decisive action on this issue. We submitted a draft Code of Practice outlining what we believe should be included in any Government  Industry code. But we were kept waiting.

We are pleased that the Government has now delivered, as these new rules couldn’t come too soon. However, have yet to receive a copy of the full standards, and so are unable to assess their effectiveness.  

Whilst these long-awaited standards are welcomed, IFAW is concerned they will only address part of the problem. Leaving a few trees on which to survive is a short-term solution. Will companies be forced to retain permanent vegetation for koalas to survive – not just a few trees? Currently, the trees that are not cut down because koalas inhabit them during harvest season are cut down as soon as the koalas vacate them. This is not an effective long-term solution, either, as these trees would have been part of their natural home range.

And most importantly, how exactly are these standards going to be monitored and enforced to ensure compliance?

Will this be another catastrophe waiting to happen, on a much larger scale than the Otways, where koalas were left in their hundreds to starve as a result of habitat loss and over-browsing and have had to be euthanased and translocated?

We have a thriving koala population in South West Victoria with nowhere to go. What is needed is a new, broad and radical landscape approach. Significant areas of land need to be preserved and protected, trees need to be replanted and wildlife corridors built to enable these koalas to survive.

With these iconic and precious animals disappearing before our eyes in NSW and QLD, these SW Victorian koalas may well be the only solution to retaining a healthy and robust population in Australia. We must do everything we can to protect them for future generations.

-JS 

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