Most Australians are unaware that the 31st President of the United States of America, Herbert Hoover, was also the patron saint of koalas.
Early after European settlement, koalas were hunted mercilessly for their soft fur pelts. By the late 1890s 300,000 were annually being sold to the London fur market. As a result by the early 1900s koalas were almost extinct in the southern part of Australia. In the US millions of pelts were sold for fur trading, to the point where, in a one-month season in 1927, some 584,738 koalas were killed for the US market.
It was too much for President Hoover, who had spent two years in Western Australia as a mining engineer. He prohibited koala and wombat skin imports. We owe dear Herbert a debt of gratitude.
The latest koala scare was created by a recent current affairs program highlighting urban residential development along our east coast.
My first reaction was: ‘Here we go again.’ Before you think I’m callous, hear me out. I get depressed at the death of one koala. However, I have become inured to regular predictions of the extinction of koalas only to hear the threat repeated a few years later.
I watched the television program from start to finish. It is fantastic that the issue was brought to national attention. My disappointment was with the program’s failure to mention the remedies available. The most obvious one is the method I used at the wildlife sanctuary I built at Calga, near Gosford on the NSW Central Coast.
I did so to illustrate that the major threat to Australia’s wildlife was caused by feral animals: foxes, cats and wild dogs. To which can be added forestry, mining, motor vehicles, droughts, bushfires and, in the case of koalas, chlamydia and residential development. Tony Burke, Federal Minister for the Environment, has listed koalas in Queensland, NSW and the ACT as endangered under environmental law. As Australia’s population rises, the pressure to provide more land for development expands.
We were eager to have koalas in our Calga sanctuary, but they required a special enclosure so that visitors could get close to the koalas but not too close. Staff are essential to gather eucalyptus leaves and tend to the koalas’ needs. The cost was prohibitive thanks to South Australian bureaucrats who had been screaming out for help to handle a plague of 30,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island.
Aware that they were considering ‘culling or sterilisation’, I contacted their wildlife office and offered to look after some. I was told that they no longer wanted to translocate koalas, but if they ever did they would charge $5,000 each. The full koala program would have cost around $200,000, which was prohibitive.
What can be done to save koalas? The only way is to separate them from residential development, motor vehicles and feral animals. It’s not difficult if you have the will and support of federal, local and state governments, the private sector and the conservation movement.
We had acquired 80 hectares of Hawkesbury near pristine bushland, surrounded it with a two-metre-high state-of-the-art predator-proof fence, eliminated the ferals and introduced Australian fauna that was indigenous to the region. The cost to build the sanctuary 15 years ago was approximately $1.5 million. Today? Probably between $3 million and $5 million.
How does one put it together? Start by making developers planning substantial residential areas where koalas are located to dedicate around a quarter of the land to the protection of native wildlife. It should not be difficult to tempt major industrial companies to build the fence and gates.
Local conservation groups and koala experts could provide the human resources to look after the koalas. Roads, tracks and other infrastructure have to be built, providing the opportunity for state and local government to make a contribution. The possibilities are endless. If my youngest son, Adam, and I could do it without government assistance at all, then community bodies, government and private enterprise could do it with their eyes closed.
What about overheads, I hear you ask? Three staff would be all that’s required, and opening five days a week would keep the numbers down. There is also income from guided tours, particularly from community and school groups. It must be done if koalas are to survive.
Fifteen years of hard work, worry and frustration with government red tape at state and local government level finally took their toll. We were watched over by Gosford Council, who drove us mad with their rules and regulations, while doing nothing to protect the land for which they were responsible. Visitors were taken on guided tours to see our wildlife as they would have been before Europeans arrived. When we left there were seven different species of kangaroo, wombats, emus, reptiles and more than 100 species of native birds. What we didn’t have was koalas, thanks to the bureaucrats.
We sold out to a delightful South African couple who devoted vast amounts of time, money and affection to preserving the sanctuary. Some will ask how many sanctuaries are required. It’s impossible to be precise until surveys show us exactly how many koalas there are, their location and where urban development is proposed.
Undoubtedly there will be screams from some developers that they are being forced to pay for the protection and preservation of our most revered animal. And they would be right. They will certainly be asked to pay a proportion of it and they will have to include their contribution in the cost of the land.
However, if we want the koala to survive in the wild there is no alternative. The only way to protect our wildlife from the threats I’ve outlined is to put them in sanctuaries behind feral animal-proof fences. Ignore those who claim the answer is to declare more national parks and forests. It won’t work unless koalas and kangaroos learn to read.
Barry Cohen is an author, columnist and former minister in the Hawke government.