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Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Dingo
Unfairly judged?

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

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Feral cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Rabbits
Perhaps not so adapted to Australia

Wombat
Keg of muscle


 

 

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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 ranging from the introduction of the cane toad to the botched feral eradication program on Macquarie Island. 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 did not have equal rights with other species and were in fact infringing upon the rights of gum trees. 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 looming disaster along with the the job that scientists were doing to prevent it. In one report, the ABC announced:

"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. Alternatively, some Tasmanian devils could have been introduced to the island to pick off some koalas moving between trees along the ground.

Keeping native animals out of trees really isn't a challenge for people living in cities and for gardeners. Some academics either have not worked out there are simple solutions or they want complex solutions as more funding is involved.

For reasons that could be debated, neither option was considered. 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 remained under the threat of extinction, 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/

 

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Environmental Issues

Environmental problems
The cultural basis of defining environmental problems

Indigenous environmentalism
Differences between Indigenous and non-indigenous land management

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

Bush fire prevention
To go native or exotic?