Everyone loves koalas, so the weekend’s announcement that $50 million has been earmarked by the federal government to save them was never likely to spawn a raging controversy. It should, though, as koalas don’t need saving. Indeed, they are in much higher numbers across a much wider area today than when Europeans arrived in Australia. Back then they were so rare that it was all of 15 years before the first specimen was found and displayed in Sydney.
What few realise is that koala numbers are directly related to land use and management — or, rather, mismanagement. Koalas are an irruptive species, a term synonymous with ‘pest’, as I noted in an earlier Quadrant article, when applied to creatures not quite so cute.
In a few words, koala populations boom in dense, young regrowth forests after high-intensity fires, plus forests thickening and declining in the absence of maintenance by mild fire.
Below, a koala chronology since the First Fleet, including the many predictions of imminent species demise and, of late, the influence of green lobbying and ‘science’ with a political twist.
1788 Europeans set up camp at Weerong/Sydney Cove.
1791-1815 Numerous expeditions seek to cross the Blue Mountains and beyond. No koalas are sighted.
1798 John Wilson, an ex-convict who lived in the bush with Aborigines, shows explorer John Price some koala dung south of Cumberland Plain.
1802 Gory, Aboriginal guide to explorer Francis Barallier, barters two spears and a tomahawk for a sample of two koala feet obtained south of Cumberland Plain. Europeans employ Aborigines to search for koalas
1803 Live koala brought to Sydney from south of Cumberland Plain. The Gazette reports: “Its food consists solely of gum leaves, in the choice of which it is excessively nice”
1810 First drawing of a koala is published. It’s described as “a solitary animal rarely to be met with”
1817-1846 The parties of explorers Oxley, Sturt and Mitchell conduct many extensive explorations throughout the koala’s range. None are sighted.
1818 An Aborigine guiding naturalist Allan Cunningham in the Illawarra kills a koala.
1821 Explorer Hamilton Hume’s guides are told by local Aborigines of koalas living on a scrubby hill in the upper Shoalhaven.
1830s Pastoralists occupy grassy woodlands in coastal valleys of NSW and VIC. There are no koalas in the valleys. Aboriginal burning is disrupted right around the coastal side of the Great Dividing Range.
1836 Surveyor Govett (back in England) writes of plentiful koalas in dense new stringybark forests of the foothills on both sides of the Blue Mountains. He also describes a new Aboriginal technique to drag them out of trees with a bark noose on a sapling pole.
1840 Strzelecki becomes the only explorer ever to see koalas. His party eats them to survive as they struggle through dense 20-year-old forest initiated by our first megafire. This was open country maintained by the Yowenjerre before the tribe was decimated by the 1789 smallpox epidemic.
1844 Renowned naturalist John Gould searches for koalas near Sydney. Even with Aboriginal guides, he writes, they “could rarely be detected” except by “diligent” search and only in thick scrub on the rough escarpments of the Illawarra and the Liverpool Ranges. Gould becomes one of the first to predict their extinction.
1851 Two decades after Aboriginal burning is disrupted, the Black Thursday fires incinerate 5 million hectares of Victoria, including the Strzelecki Ranges.
1860s Young koalas invade valleys across southeastern Australia to eat soft young leaves constantly re-sprouting in declining paddock trees, e.g. Cumberland Plain, Bega Valley, NSW; Goulburn Valley, Gippsland Plain, VIC.
1870s-1910 Europeans clear and burn the Strzeleckis for dairy farms. They find plagues of dingoes feeding on plagues of koalas.
1887 Koala plagues in valley woodlands across the southeast. Koalas are malnourished and diseased. Export fur industry commences. The more adults shot, the more young survive. So koalas continue to increase.
1895 Federation Drought commences in the south (starts and finishes later in the north).
1898 February Red Tuesday fires rage in the Strzeleckis.
1898 December Koalas legally protected in Victoria.
1900-1910 Gum leaves frizzle, koala numbers crash. Koalas disappear from coastal woodlands SA to QLD. Stable low-density populations persist unnoticed in mature forests.
1903 Koalas legally protected in NSW.
1906 Koala hunting regulated in QLD.
1920s Koalas irrupt in central and northeast QLD (where pastoral development was delayed, compared to further south). Koalas are malnourished and diseased.
1927 The last open season on koalas in QLD.
1927-1933 Koalas continue to increase in central and northeast QLD, attaining unsustainable densities.
1933-1939 Koala numbers crash in central and northeast QLD during a sustained period of low rainfall.
1934 Victoria’s Inspector of Fisheries and Game states that koalas are extinct in SA, NSW and there are “very few” left in the Strzelecki Ranges. He says the species is doomed to extinction in mainland Australia
1934 The Victorian Naturalist publishes a map incorrectly showing that the koala’s range has contracted to central and northeastern QLD, except for artificial island populations.
1949 A mail-out survey reveals that koalas have been sighted in 109 separate locations across NSW since the 1920s.
1974 NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) is established.
1975 NPWS conducts a mail-out survey which reveals more koala sightings at more locations than reported prior to 1949.
1976 A meeting of 43 koala experts at Taronga Zoo unanimously agrees that koalas are increasing and in absolutely no danger of extinction.
1977 Sydney water supply catchments, south of Cumberland Plain, burn in high intensity wildfires.
1980 Logging and high intensity wildfires northeast of Bega create dense young forests.
1980s Prescribed burning in NSW forests is reduced as more National Parks and more environmental regulations are created.
1986 Koalas begin to irrupt once more on southern edge of Cumberland Plain.
1987 Another mail-out survey by NPWS turns up even more koala sightings at even more locations.
1990 NPWS compares koala sightings over two years, 1985-87, against sightings over 60 years, 1920s-1984. They ‘find’ that koalas have disappeared from hundreds of areas and are mainly confined to the north coast. They host a Koala Summit, launching an anti-logging campaign to create more parks.
1991 Scientific research finds that north coast koalas are concentrated in dense young regrowth forests established by heavy logging, and in eucalypt plantations. There are three times more koalas in young forests than in old-growth ones.
1992 NSW lists koalas as vulnerable to extinction.
1995 Regrowth forests and plantations near Coffs Harbour are locked up to ‘save’ koalas.
1995 Koala populations and chronic eucalypt decline are increasing in north coast forests, whether young or old.
1997-2001 Koala populations and chronic eucalypt decline are increasing in dense young forests and in old-growth forests northeast of Bega.
1820-2009 After 20 megafires in 200 years, including Black Thursday, Red Tuesday, Black Friday and Black Saturday, Strzelecki koalas are still in unnaturally high densities.
2010 Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC) advises the Federal Environment Minister (wrongly) that there’s obviously been a marked decline in the total koala population, and (rightly) that there’s not enough data to show it meets the criteria for listing as a threatened species.
2011 Senate Environment Reference Committee reports there were 10 million koalas when Europeans arrived — the same settlers who took 15 years to find one. The recommendation is that the TSSC includes population data in future advice to the Minister, and that the Minister considers listing the koala as a vulnerable species in some areas.
2011 (November) TSSC revises its advice to the Minister on the basis of “new information mostly arising from the Senate Inquiry”. TSSC now recommends that the Minister designates Queensland, NSW and ACT koalas as a species for the purposes of the EPBC Act and lists them as vulnerable.
2012 (February) Seventeen koala experts gather to ‘synthesise’ population data.
2012 (April) QLD, NSW, ACT koalas are listed as vulnerable.
2013 High intensity wildfires burn across Blue Mountains and to the south of Cumberland Plain
2014 NPWS makes a model purporting to show that koalas are extinct at Eden, except for a few survivors in a ‘climate refuge’ north-east of Bega.
2016 Experts publish their ‘synthesised’ population data in a scientific journal, effectively boasting that they made it up:
A quantitative, scientific method for deriving estimates of koala populations and trends was possible, in the absence of empirical data on abundances.
2016 NSW declares a new koala park to ‘protect’ the irrupting population north-east of Bega.
2016 NSW’s Chief Scientist conducts an Independent Review into the Decline of Koala Populations in Key Areas of NSW, based on four case studies by NPWS/OEH. She finds that three irrupting populations at Campbelltown, Coffs Harbour and Eden are respectively “stable or increasing; stable to slowly declining; significantly reduced” to about 45 koalas. The unsustainably dense Pilliga-Liverpool Plains population, which crashed in the Federation Drought and again in the Millennium Drought, is said to have suffered a dramatic decline.
2018 NSW releases a $45 million Koala Strategy which aims to “stabilise and then increase koala numbers”, chiefly by creating 24,000 hectares of new koala parks.
2018 NSW’s Department of Primary Industry (DPI) publishes research showing that koala numbers are five times higher than previously thought on the north coast and are not affected in any way by logging.
2018 NSW DPI gets more funding to do more research about the non-existent impact of logging on koalas.
2019 NSW DPI publishes scientific research showing that north coast koala numbers are five times higher than previously thought.
2019 NSW Parliament holds a Koala Inquiry.
2019 Lightning starts what will become the world’s largest-ever wildfire from a single ignition, more than half a million hectares, in ‘protected’ koala habitat in the Blue Mountains.
2019 During thst megafire, Science for Wildlife tells the Inquiry that koalas started “popping up” during the 2013 fires. Now “everywhere we look we find a lot of koalas – a young and expanding population”.
2019 A former NPWS expert tells the inquiry that koalas reoccupied areas burnt by 1994 crownfires at Port Stevens within months and produced young within a year.
2020 NSW Koala Inquiry finds that, given the loss of koalas in the Black Summer megafires, koalas will be extinct by 2050 unless there’s urgent government intervention to protect habitat.
2021 NSW budget announcement ‘commits’ $193 million to doubling koala numbers by 2050.
2021 The ABC’s Catalyst reports that koalas and joeys just born when the Black Summer megafires ripped through their habitat are in great condition.
2021 World Wildlife Fund runs a sustained multimedia campaign and proposes a four-year, $55 million plan “grounded by good science” to “save” koalas. This is in addition to a proposed $50 million Great Koala National Park in NSW to protect them from logging.
2021 TSSC assesses koalas with postcodes in the 2000s or 4000s, i.e. those in ACT, NSW or QLD, as being eligible for listing as an endangered species. The same species with postcodes in the 3000s or 5000s (VIC and SA) is apparently ineligible. The assessment is based on experts’ guesses “in the absence of empirical data” by their own admission.
2021 Minister Ley’s Environment Department invites public comment on the assessment. The deadline for comments is July 31. Several submissions identify the deficiencies of the assessment.
2022 (January 29) Seven months after the submissions deadline, there has been no public report or ministerial decision on the assessment. Nevertheless Prime Minister Morrison announces a four-year, $50 million plan to ‘save’ koalas
The $50 Million Plan includes:
♦ $30 million for habitat restoration/protection – i.e. creating more dirty and explosive scrub
♦ $10 million to extend monitoring – i.e. more ineffective surveys and expert pronouncements
♦ $3 million to research/treat diseases/injuries – all symptoms of dense/expanding populations
Truth, as they say, is stranger than fiction — and grant-fed science to combat non-existent crises strangest of all.
Vic Jurskis is the author of The Great Koala Scam, which can be ordered here