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Australian Environmental Issues

Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

Crocodile
So you wrestle crocs...

Dingo
Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

Echidna
The wise little gnomes of Australia

Emu
Victors of the great Emu war

Flies
Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Kangaroo
Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Snakes
Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Wombat
Keg of muscle

Quoll
The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories

 

 

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The Koala Plague on Kangaroo Island

"Our challenge today is to become more ecologically astute, to recognise that native species can be pests too, that will sometimes need controlling (killing). Australia will have matured as a nation when we can calmly debate the merits of shooting koalas, for conservation's sake." Biologist Tim Low

Australia has plenty of stories regarding silly environmental policy.One of the silliest was a plan to build a 1,833 km long fence to keep rabbits out of Western Australia that became obsolete once the single pregnant female made it to the other side before the fence was even finished. Not to be discouraged, the Western Australians built a second fence further west to do what the first one couldn’t do. When that didn’t work, they instead re-pursued it as necessary to stop the dingoes following the rabbits to the wheat fields. When they realised how stupid that sounded, it was repurposed again as being necessary to stop emus. When the emus knocked it down, the army was called in to fight the Great Emu War because by knocking the fences down, the emus were letting in rabbits. And through it all, money kept being made by fixing fences and policians patted themselves on the back for doing something about pests from the east.

The story of koalas on Kangaroo Island should be one of the successes amongst the disasters. In the 1930s, environmental scientists decided that Kangaroo Island would make a great Noah's ark for mainland species under threat. Koalas, possums, platypus, and a wombat were introduced. The plan worked so well that Kangaroo Island became the best place to see Australian wildlife today. Koalas proved to be a particular drawcard and by the 1990s, were helping to attract more than 140,000 tourists to the island each year. The economic benefits of the tourism dollar gave a powerful incentive to retain much of the land as wilderness instead of clearing it for agriculture.

Despite wildlife thriving and the tourists flooding in, scientists struggled to give any credit to previous generations. Because the koala had been introduced by humans, they felt it was not endemic to the island and therefore they were infringing upon the rights of the gum trees that didn't want to be eaten. In the words of David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide:

"You are going to cause major problems for other species -- other species that are endemic to the island. Those things have a right, a greater right, to be here than koalas." (1)

Aside being an expression of environmental xenophobia, the main concern seemed to be that koalas were eating Manna gums to death. It seems that the trees could survive having all their leaves burnt off in a bushfire and would even re-sprout after being cut down with a chain saw, but they could not survive when most of the leaves were eaten by koalas.

The ABC was on hand to report the damage that the koalas were doing. More importantly, the ABC also reported what a great job scientists-in-need-of-funding were doing as they protected the gums:

"But the koalas, no longer restricted to their preferred manna gums, are spreading out across the island, targeting and demolishing gum tree species previously thought unpalatable to their taste. They threaten not only precious Kangaroo Island species of manna, but also the survival of creatures who depend on their canopy and its nectar. 

Scientists are picking up the pieces."  (2)

With the koalas eating the "precious" gum leaves and depriving other species of its sweet sweet "nectar", scientists demanded that something be done, or more accurately, that they be funded to do something. If manna gums were seriously at risk of extinction, the simplest solution would have been to identify some of the valued trees and then wrap aluminium guards around them, as is done in city parks to keep possums out of exotic trees. Admittedly, koalas would still starve to death but starvation is a fact of life in the animal world.

Keeping native animals out of trees really isn't a challenge for people living in cities and for gardeners.

For reasons that could be debated, the cheap, simple and effective solution was not implemented. Instead, the scientists' strategy to "pick up the pieces" was to be perpetually funded to catch and sterilise some of the estimated 16,000 koalas on the island and run public education campaigns about the koalas infringing upon the rights of precious gum trees.

For a while, the Labor government agreed that not only did something need to be done, but that a very expensive solution was the best solution of all. Consequently, between 1997 and 2005 the government paid for the sterilisation of 3,400 adult koalas and relocated a further 1,000. Each sterilisation cost around $140.

Needless to say, the remaining koalas kept breeding, the "precious" gum trees continued to have their rights impacted on the island, various species weren't getting their sweet sweet nectar and environmental scientists kept "picking up the pieces." Eventually a politician wised up and realised that sterilisation along with public education was a sustainable business solution but not a wise environmental policy. Not only was it expensive, it was interfering with natural selection and making South Australians look like idiots.

Once the sterilisation program was ended, scientists predicted disaster. Ironically, they were right. For some strange reason, the population of koalas dropped by half after a virus mysteriously went through the population. On the surface, it seemed that nature self-corrects. Perhaps the virus developed because as koala numbers rose and their bodies became malnourished, the probability of harmful virus mutations increased. Alternatively, maybe a virus jumped species after the koalas were in a vet surgery being sterilised. Either way, curing the koalas of the threatening virus became the next threat to justify research funding.

1) SA shies away from koala cull, Australian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1081674.htm Broadcast: 05/04/2004

2) Kangaroo Island May 11 http://www.abc.net.au/nature/island/ep6/

 

koala

 

 

Invasive ferals

Carp

Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

Rabbits
A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Bushfire
Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

 

 

       

Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012