Slaughtered or Saved: Koalas’ Lives Depend on Where They Live

Queensland’s declining koala population is getting more safeguards but Victoria has too few eucalyptus trees to feed its booming population.

(Photo: Swallowtail Garden Seeds/Flickr)

Jun 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

In one Australian state, the country’s iconic marsupials recently got some good news: Koalas throughout Queensland will now be listed as a “vulnerable species.”

Government officials say expanding the listing to include all territories—not just those in the southeast region—is needed to prevent the further decline of a species threatened by urban development, car accidents, and dog attacks, not to mention climate change–influenced stressors such as paw-searing heat waves and dehydration-inducing droughts.

Since 2012, koalas have been protected across portions of Queensland, New South Wales, and the Australian Capital Territory.

“Everybody loves the koala, and we must do everything in our power to protect [it] now and into the future,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk told reporters on Sunday.

But in another state, the tree-hugging marsupials apparently aren’t so loved.

In Victoria, koala populations aren’t declining, so the government hasn’t given them any protections—and in some areas, such as tourist hot spot Cape Otway, they’re considered overpopulated.

So overpopulated, in fact, that the park’s eucalyptus trees have been stripped bare by the marsupials, leaving them without proper nutrition. In an attempt to sustain the population, park officials secretly euthanized 686 of them between 2013 and 2014.

Now it looks like they might have to kill more koalas. Last week, Victoria’s Department of Environment released its health check of the region, and despite some improvement in Otway’s manna gum eucalyptus foliage, the number of koalas is still too high.

This time around, the plan is to implant female koalas with birth control to hold the population down; those animals “deemed too sick” will be euthanized, officials said.

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So how is it that one state moves to protect its declining koala population while another decides to kill its koalas? The problem is a lack of a unified plan, according to conservation groups such as the nonprofit Australian Koala Foundation.

“The only way to protect koalas is a federal koala protection plan,” AKF chief executive Deborah Tabart said in a June 1 statement.

Instead of one plan to protect all koalas, individual states have been assessing the risks and conservation methods for their resident koalas, and that has left gaps in the management of the species, Tabart said.

Even getting true koala population estimates is tough: Anywhere from 43,000 to 200,000 are in the wild today. But even at the highest estimate, koala numbers are nowhere near the 10 million that inhabited the continent prior to European settlement.

In Queensland, the state’s southeastern population has had protections since 2004, but in 2012, a study found that its southwestern population had declined from 60,000 to 11,000 in the past two decades.

Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles told the Australian Broadcasting Network the expanded state listing was both positive and negative.

“It’s bad news because it means the koala population is not as strong outside of southeast Queensland as we thought it was,” he said. “But it’s good news because it means the government and local councils will do more to protect our valuable koala habitat.”

But regional protections don’t mean much for Victoria’s koalas, which remain unprotected.

Tabart sees Queensland’s move to protect its koalas as a way for Australia to avoid listing the marsupials as federally protected—a stricter listing that would hamper development and industry, she said. “We fear that the scenario will be that this listing allows the federal government to step away from their obligations to protect the koala, because Queensland has said, ‘It’s all right—we’ve got this. Back to the old days, and industry will be very happy.’ ”