Alarm as 40,000 koalas face grim future in remote corner of Australian state

'The injuries suffered by these animals are horrendous.'

Koalas are worth millions as a major tourist drawcard to Australia. We celebrate their cuteness with fluffy toys, and in books and cartoons, but in a remote corner of Australia thousands of wild marsupials face starvation and death as their homes are cut down and turned into woodchips for export, a veteran ecologist is warning.

Dr Stephen Phillips, the principal research associate at BioLink, is concerned about the welfare of koalas living across Victoria’s southwest in a timber plantation hub called the Green Triangle. Although these plantations were never designed to support koalas, populations boomed because of the high nutrient level in the particular species of blue gum planted across the region’s fertile basalt plains.

Victoria’s environment department (DEECA) has refused to support removing koalas prior to harvesting due to animal welfare concerns, but Phillips argues leaving them in the plantations results in avoidable injuries and displacement.

Side by side images of koalas rescued from plantations in Australia
Wildlife volunteers report increases in koala rescues after plantations are harvested. Source: Supplied

“I’ve been in those plantations in the southwest where I’m well aware there are high densities of koalas... And the injuries suffered by these animals are horrendous, some of it is just awful,” he told Yahoo News. “And yet, our governments just turn a blind eye and hope it's all going to bloody well go away. But the reality is it’s not going to go away.”

Phillips argues ecologists can now successfully translocate koalas to new areas of habitat with 100 per cent success and no mortalities. And that areas like the Grampians where fire has decimated koala populations, could benefit from the process.

Victoria's abundant koala estimate could be wrong

After harvesting, rescuers frequently report spikes in road-related deaths as koalas flee in search of new homes. Sadly, the areas they do eventually reach are often forests that already contain over-abundant populations, and this sometimes leads to the koalas becoming starved and requiring euthanasia.

The Victorian government estimates there are 459,865 koalas living across the state, with the majority living in the southwest, where 210,277 koalas reside in native forests and 42,581 in plantations. Because of this assumption about numbers, koalas are not listed as endangered as they are in NSW, Queensland and ACT and lack the same level of federal protection under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC)

A map showing where Victoria's Green Triangle is.
Thousands of koalas live in plantations across Victoria's Green Triangle. Source: Google Maps/Department of Agriculture

However Phillips believes the number of koalas living across Victoria could actually be much lower than government estimate, because his research has found some areas contain high numbers of koalas and in other patches of forest they’re sparsely distributed. While he doesn’t want to provide a number, he believes the population could be as low as 25 per cent of the government estimate.

“The number of koalas is often used to increase the scale of the problem. People will say, that’s a lot of bloody koalas. And certainly it is. But so is a ten-fold reduction in this number. It doesn’t really matter, it’s about a humane, coordinated and well informed approach,” he said.

More on koalas in Victoria's south west

Authorities respond to koala concerns

Yahoo News has been reporting on the plight of koalas in Victoria’s southwest since 2020 and DEECA has refused all requests by Yahoo News to take part in an interview about the issue.

Responding to questions for this article it issued a statement saying it continues to work towards the “long-term protection and survival of Victoria’s koalas” and that its management strategy allows it to “better support” the plantation industry in protecting animal welfare and habitat.

“The Victorian government has invested over $3 million over two years to support the delivery of the strategy, including on-ground koala management programs, a statewide survey to paint a clearer and more accurate picture of koala abundance, and research helping to conserve Victoria's koala populations well into the future.”

Koalas in a tree in east Gippsland in Victoria after a plantation has been harvested.
This image of a koala at a plantation in eastern Victoria shows the standard way harvesters retain small clusters of trees around koalas during harvesting. Source: Anthony Amis

Why the koala problem will disappear

In the long term the problem of koalas will likely diminish, as blue gums are increasingly being replaced with pine trees which cannot serve as a feed tree. But Phillips wants authorities to act now and devise a new plan to help koalas living in existing plantations.

"They think the authorities think, 'well this will go on for several more years'. And yes, we'll have periodic outbursts from the community and other people, and eventually the problem will go away.

"Its a terrible attitude for Victoria. Many see koalas as a pest rather than a national identity."

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.