Australia

‘Koalas have been reduced to grazing like sheep,’ conference told

Delegates to the national koala conference in Port Macquarie in the eastern Australian state of New South Wales heard today (Saturday) about the plight of koalas who are displaced when blue gum plantations are harvested.

“Koalas have moved into these plantations and have thrived,” said Tracey Wilson from Mosswood Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation in southwest Victoria.

“However, the impact on the landscape and the koalas when these plantations are harvested is devastating.”

Wilson says that displaced koalas are placing massive pressure on the small amount of existing roadside vegetation, private land, indigenous land, and parks and reserves.

She told delegates that koalas are now eating coppice (the stumps that are left after harvesting).

“We have reduced these arboreal animals to grazing like sheep,” she said.

When there are bushfires, koalas will eat coppice, but they don’t usually come to the ground to feed. Wilson is therefore surprised and intrigued to see them eating coppice on the blue gum plantations.

“When I try to feed coppice blue gum to koalas in care, they will not touch it,” she told Changing Times. “The sight of a koala grazing is not good; they are arboreal animals.

“When we see a koala on the ground, it’s not right – unless they are moving from tree to tree. Why are they selectively grazing on stumps when they can go and get in a manna gum or blue gum tree?”

Wilson told delegates that hundreds of koalas are being shot by landowners wanting to stop the animals browsing on their manna gum trees when the blue gums have been harvested.

She broke down when talking about having to return a rescued koala to a blue gum plantation.

“When I get a koala in care that came from a blue gum plantation where do I put it?” she said. “I have no choice. It has to go back into a blue gum plantation that isn’t due to be harvested in the next 12 months.”

Wilson talked about a koala who survived a feller buncher¹ fall. She took him back to the plantation. “It broke my heart because this koala didn’t want to get out of the basket.

“It’s horrible when you hear them cry. I had never heard this quiet, awful mewing, and that’s what this koala did. He just mewed. It was just extreme stress.”

The blue gum industry took off in Australia when, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, management investment schemes offered huge tax deductions to those investing in the industry.

“Hundreds of millions of dollars were invested,” Wilson said. “By 2006, 750,000 hectares of blue gums were planted in southern Australia.”

In 2013, the blue gum industry in the Green Triangle was exposed for killing and maiming koalas during harvesting, Wilson says. There was a major report on the “7.30” programme on ABC television.

After this, a koala zone was created. “We had useful dialogue with the industry for some time after the 7.30 report,” Wilson said. “We got some voluntary guidelines in place. One company lost its certification and it cost them millions to get it back.”

There are now koala spotters on the plantations within the koala zone, Wilson says. There are only about 35 of them, however, and none on site when bark and leaves and other residues are burned.

”I have had quite a lot of koalas burnt from this practice in the past. And we have a lot of koalas killed in the feller buncher process because they don’t necessarily see them up in the branches.”

Wilson (pictured left) says that, within the koala zone, there are 80,000 hectares of blue gums, and up to eight koalas per hectare. “Where do these guys go when harvesting is completed?” she asks. “It’s farmland.”

When the government had the opportunity, when standards were being set, to insist that the companies leave a certain amount of koala habitat behind permanently, they didn’t do it, Wilson says.

New standards are, however, coming into force that will bring major improvements, she adds. It will, for instance, be compulsory for the companies to have spotters on site when burning is carried out.

“We need to be positive. We have come a long way. The environment minister has brought in new regulations that will soon be in place, so some of the things that we saw in the past, we hopefully won’t be seeing again.”

Under the new requirements, it will be mandatory in the Green Triangle for blue gum plantation management companies, whose operations may impact koalas, to apply for authorisation under the 1975 Wildlife Act.

Companies will also have to develop a Koala Management Plan that meets minimum requirements set by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP).

Plantation management companies will have to carry out population surveys, use koala spotters during their operations, and retain a number of trees around any tree that contains a koala. They will also have to report any injuries to, or deaths of, koalas.

The efficacy of the new regulations will depend on policing, Wilson says. She hopes that stakeholders will see the new regulations as a chance to revegetate and put back critical habitat in a landscape that has been vastly changed.

“I would like to think that there’s an opportunity for some continued, creative conversations with the industry about them being a part of the solution as regards landscaping and providing permanent habitat in conjunction with other stakeholders such as landowners,  Greening Australia, and Landcare groups.

“Some of these people have some great ideas already and are really enthusiastic, but there is very limited funding available to make these ideas a possibility.

“We accept that the blue gum industry is critical to employment in our area, so it will be there for the long term. But we want our koalas and our habitat to be there for the long term.”

Wood chips piled up on the wharf in Portland Harbour, waiting for export.

There are more exports of hardwood chip from southwest Victoria than anywhere else in the world. So far this year, the exports have amounted to 3.7 million tons of blue gum chip and 0.3 million tonnes of blue gum logs.

Woodchip from the blue gums is exported for paper production, and Japan and China are the main buyers.

Koala retrovirus

Delegates to the koala conference also heard today about the work being done to develop a vaccine against the Koala retrovirus (KoRV).

Olusola Olagoke from the Faculty of Science, Health, Education and Engineering at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland said the majority of Australia’s koalas are infected with KoRV.

There is a 100 percent KoRV infection rate in Queensland, Olagoke says. All Queensland koalas have the KoRV-B genome. The infection rate is less in South Australia, Olagoke says, and there is no KoRV-B, only KoRV-A.

Both KoRV-B and KoRV-A have been strongly implicated in chlamydia disease, but KoRV-B has more association with lymphoma and leukaemia, Olagoke says. Some zoos have reported a koala mortality rate of up to 50 percent from these diseases.

Olagoke (pictured left) said that, in a trial in Adelaide, researchers had successfully vaccinated five koalas with a recombinant KoRV envelope protein vaccine.

Three of the koalas are KoRV-positive and two are KoRV-negative.

The animals have had no adverse responses to the vaccine, Olagoke says, and have shown a KoRV-specific immune response.

“If the koalas do develop antibodies, they should be able to clear their current infection, and re-infection should also be prevented.”

Delegates also heard about the management of oxalate nephrosis (renal disease) in koalas in a captive environment.

Melissa Pettigrew Burford from the Cleland Wildlife Park said that 60 percent of the koalas in the park, who have either been hand-raised or bred in the park, have shown clinical signs of renal disease.

James Fitzgerald, meanwhile, showed delegates fascinating footage of koalas feeding on the bark of a koala chew tree at his wildlife sanctuary in the Snowy Monaro region of New South Wales and explained that koalas are drawn to the bark because of its high sodium content.

Nearly two hundred people are attending the three-day conference, which is entitled “Their Future is in our Hands”.

The conference is being organised by the koala hospital in Port Macquarie, with the backing of the local council. It brings together a wide range of delegates, including carers, campaigners, scientists, and veterinarians.

  1. A feller buncher is a type of harvester used in logging.

More coverage to follow.

Article was updated on 4/6/2107

 

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