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152 koalas killed in private forest by US company: 'Not good enough'

Alcoa unexpectedly announced the outcome of health checks conducted close to its aluminium smelter in Victoria.

Alcoa has revealed it euthanised 152 koalas suffering poor health on land adjacent to its Portland aluminium smelter in Victoria.

The marsupials were destroyed under the supervision of independent experts during a series of checks undertaken since 2019 by the US-owned industrial giant. Over that time 348 were assessed and 79 females were given fertility control.

The company now plans to encourage 120 koalas living in forest near the smelter to relocate, bringing to an end ongoing concern about koalas becoming sick from fluoride emissions. "We remain committed to supporting the ongoing protection and management of the local koala population," a spokesperson said in a statement.

Alcoa closed pathways onto its property during the koala health checks. Source: Supplied
Alcoa closed pathways onto its property during the koala health checks. Source: Supplied

A critic of the company's koala management said the number of euthanasias was "not good enough" because the issue should have been addressed years ago.

Alcoa's koala health check data release a surprise

Images supplied to Yahoo News Australia in March show a forest was closed to the public while koalas were assessed near Alcoa. While the checks were necessary to address health concerns, they prompted concern from local wildlife advocates who worried about what was happening to the animals.

The release of health check data was unexpected. In June 2022 and March this year, Alcoa refused to disclose these details to Yahoo News Australia. “We do not see value in releasing detailed figures or results from individual health assessments,” it said in a statement.

To better understand how sick koalas at the site were and if they were declining in health, Yahoo submitted a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in March to Victoria’s environment department (DECCA) asking for the detailed medical reports of each koala assessed. Prior to it being fulfilled, Alcoa released health check results on May 8.

What’s wrong with koalas at the Alcoa site?

Assessors hired by Alcoa identified “significant over-population” and “declining health” in koalas living closest to the smelter. The checks were authorised by The Conservation Regulator, a regulatory arm of the state environment department (DECCA). They form part of the company’s Koala Management Plan (KAP), which Zoos Victoria and several other organisations have assisted with.

Left: a koala in a tree near the Portland Smelter. Right: the Portland aluminium smelter against clouds and and blue sky.
Koalas living near the Portland aluminium smelter were found to be in poor health. Source: Supplied/Getty

Alcoa concluded the high fluoride levels from its operations are safe for humans, but they could harm koalas. It acknowledged the potential impacts of fluorosis on wildlife around the site, a disease that causes malnutrition as well as skeletal and dental abnormalities.

In response to this issue, the company developed its KAP, a document that also addresses overpopulation. Prior to adopting its KAP, Alcoa revealed in 2021 it had relocated 103 koalas since 2015 and one had been found dead on its grounds.

Koalas at Alcoa by the numbers

The health checks were carried out around 77 hectares that surround Alcoa, with a focus on a 17-hectare plantation close to its smelter that is home to the largest concentration of koalas and within the fluoride deposition zone.

Alcoa's assessments found the population's health is poor, and over the last two years, 60 per cent of animals checked were euthanised due to overpopulation and exposure to fluoride emissions.

Call for greater government supervision of koalas

Anthony Amis from conservation group Friends of the Earth has been studying koalas at the Alcoa site for a number of years.

He believes the health check results highlight the “desperate situation” koalas have been facing. “To have 152 Animals euthanised at one site has got to be some sort of almost an Australian record for a company,” he said.

As Alcoa has been operating at the site since 1986, Mr Amis said the company should have acted sooner to relocate the animals. He accused the government of leaving it up to a private company to “clean up the mess”. “It’s just not good enough,” he added.

Victoria’s environment minister Ingrid Stitt was contacted for comment on Monday evening.

What is Alcoa going to do about the problem?

Alcoa plans to gradually remove the 17-hectare plantation which supports a population of 120 koalas. It has planted 16,000 eucalyptus trees on 14 hectares which will form part of a 77-hectare parcel of habitat.

Its hoped koalas living near the smelter will gradually move across to these trees.

But isn’t koala habitat protected?

While koalas in ACT, NSW and Queensland are listed as endangered, the state government maintains they are "secure” in Victoria.

This population is not listed under the federal Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, and the state has a separate Koala Management Strategy. An updated version released in May found koalas are overabundant in parts of the state’s southwest — the region Portland is located in.

Alcoa is not the only body to have euthanised overabundant koalas in the area. In 2022, the government euthanised almost a third of the 125 koalas assessed 70km away at the Budj Bim dormant volcano.

Modelling by state scientists suggests Victoria is home to a total of 460,000 koalas, and that 413,000 live in native forest and woodland, while a further 50,000 live in plantations.

Some conservationists dispute the government’s assessment. The recently formed Koala Alliance Victoria is concerned the species is not abundant and that it faces pressure from habitat loss, leading to disease and starvation.

“If we don’t act, koalas in Victoria will vanish without even getting onto the endangered list. That would be a terrible tragedy and we will not rest until something is done to turn this around,” spokesperson Jessica Roberson said.

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