Mayor’s drastic koala solution ‘only option’ to curb populations

Koalas have spread into blue gum plantations across Kangaroo Island and its mayor wants euthanasia to be considered as a response.

Euthanasia could be the kindest solution to dealing with overabundant koalas, Kangaroo Island's mayor has suggested, following allegations the marsupials are being routinely killed and injured because they have spread into timber plantations now being cleared for farmland.

Disturbing images of twisted and bloody koalas allegedly harmed during harvesting on the island aired on Channel 7 on Monday night, sparking outrage across parts of Australia. The Greens responded, describing the allegations as “shocking” and called for timber harvesting to be paused until the situation is investigated.

“The public is rightly outraged at reports of this cruelty to koalas. These allegations of death and injury must face an independent investigation immediately, and the company responsible must be held to account,” Senator Sarah Hanson-Young said.

Left: Kangaroo Island Mayor Mike Pengilly. Right: An injured koala after being rescued.
Kangaroo Island Mayor Mike Pengilly suggests euthanasia is really the only real option for responding to overabundant koalas on private property. Source: Kangaroo Island Council/Channel 7

Koala populations causing problems on island, mayor says

Kangaroo Island Mayor Mike Pengilly argues the issue has been blown out of proportion, and that most harvesters effectively monitor trees during harvest to avoid harming koalas.

He says koalas have become overabundant and are causing problems for both landholders and the natural environment through over-grazing of trees. He's also concerned they die frequently on roads and can be impacted by starvation.

Pengilly, who has received death threats over his stance, notes that koalas are not native to Kangaroo Island and were introduced there over a century ago amid fears they could become extinct on the mainland. But they have since proliferated throughout native forests and timber plantations.

Euthanasia is already used to reduce kangaroo numbers elsewhere, one program in the ACT is supported by the territory's Labor-Greens government. He believes similar measures could be used with koalas, but the idea is not palatable to those not living on the land.

“They're warm and cuddly. They're not like kangaroos. But I actually seriously think it is the only option,” Pengilly told Yahoo News. “It’s one everyone is terrified of because of the effect it has on tourism, the internationals and whatnot.”

Experts warned about issues in plantations years ago

Warnings about koala abundance in plantations are not new. Prior to joining WWF-Australia, conservation scientist Dr Kita Ashman completed a PhD on the issue, and later published an article in The Conversation titled "When gum trees are cut down, where do the koalas go?"

Her message in 2019 was that plantation owners needed to be proactive and plan for good koala welfare outcomes ahead of harvesting. She urged them to clear the landscape in a way that prevented koalas from being stranded in fragmented clusters of trees, and instead preserve corridors that allowed them to move into surrounding habitat.

"The key thing to all of these recommendations is that it had to be done proactively. What we've seen on Kangaroo Island is a mess because proactive management hasn't happened," she told Yahoo News. "We knew they were breeding up interest in plantations years ago, and there was never any proactive view towards what's going to happen when we harvest."

Ashman doesn't support euthanasia of koalas on Kangaroo Island but she says finding a solution will be "tricky". She suspects translocation would be both costly and finding a new home for them would be difficult. "Really what it comes down to is time and money," she said.

Euthanasia used to combat overabundant koalas

Before the 2019-2020 Black Summer bushfires, euthanasia was sometimes used as a koala control method in the neighbouring state of Victoria. In 2013 and 2014 around 700 starving koalas were euthanised by the state government's environment department in forest near the famous Great Ocean Road that had been severely denuded of feed.

Since the fires drew international attention to the plight of koalas, similar large scale culls have not been reported. In Victoria today, euthanasia and sterilisation are sometimes used to respond to koalas suffering from poor health, which occurs on both public land and private property.

Koalas routinely shot on Kangaroo Island in the past

Prior to the Black Summer bushfires which impacted an estimated 41,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island, sterilisation was being used there in an attempt to reduce numbers. But Pengilly says that program was largely ineffective, and the number of koalas remains high.

When koalas became overabundant 20 years ago, Pengilly alleges farmers would simply shoot them and authorities would turn a blind eye. “I know one bloke who shot 1100 on his property and just put them in a pit, and there was an understanding it was the way to go,” he said.

Now he believes a coordinated approach to koala management is needed to protect Kangaroo Island’s native wildlife, the rights of property owners and the welfare of koalas.

A koala in a plantation on Kangaroo Island.
Estimates suggest 41,000 koalas were impacted by fire on Kangaroo Island, with thousands killed in plantations (pictured). Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Kangaroo Island mayor receives death threats

He argues it’s hard for many Australians living in cities to understand life in the bush. Since he appeared on Channel 7 and downplayed the severity of the issue of koalas dying in plantations, he claims to have received several death threats. Among them are accusations he’s a “koala killer” and that he should “get up a tree, fall out and die”.

“My view is that Australia was out of touch with what really happens in regional Australia and life in the bush. And it's such a city-centric culture around the country now,” he said.

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