Let the Death of 'Sam the Koala' not be in Vain

The unfortunate death of 'Sam the Koala' made media headlines last week. We must ask about the hundreds of other koalas, who also face an uncertain future and who also suffered horrendously in the fires.

The unfortunate death of 'Sam the Koala' made media headlines last week with laments coming far and wide, nationally and internationally. There is no doubt that the filming of Sam drinking from a water bottle after being burnt, was a very powerful media image, but has anyone really given much attention to the long term plight of Sam and similar bushfire survivors? What chance did Sam really have in the long term?  It's well and good to get emotional about Sam, but what about the hundreds of other koalas, like Sam who also face an uncertain future and who also suffered horrendously in the fires?.

Sam was a Strzelecki Koala, the only genetically pure koala population left in Victoria and South Australia. The Strzelecki Koalas hold the key for the preservation of the species throughout Victoria and South Australia. All other Koala populations in Victoria and South Australia suffer from diseases caused by inbreeding as they are the desecendents of only 4 animals transferred to French Island in the 1890's.

The Strzelecki Koalas, and Victorian Koalas as a whole, are under dire threat because of habitat destruction. Nothing is being done to protect this species. There is no EFFECTIVE legal protection for the koala and it is not listed as endangered or threatened. Likewise there is no legislation to protect koala habitat. In fact the best of the remaining Strzelecki habitat is being logged at a rate of 700 hectares per year by Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP), after they gained perpetual logging rights in 1998 via the sale of the Victorian Plantations Corporation by the Kennett Government. After logging 7000 hectares of koala habitat over the past decade, Hancock still don't have an adequate Koala Management Plan. HVP now control almost all of the Strzelecki Ranges.

Releasing Strzelecki Koalas into areas outside of the Strzeleckis will weaken the gene pool of the Strzelecki Koalas and place these individuals at risk. Diseases such as chylamidia, which eventually killed Sam,  increase because of stress.

The January/February 2009 Delburn and Churchill fires burnt out approximately 50% of the  best remaining koala habitat in the Strzelecki Ranges. Thousands of koalas most likely perished in the fires. Those lucky enough to survive now face the daunting prospect of having to survive in habitat lost through fires but also habitat loss through clearfell logging. Apart from small patches of bush in isolated private property where can the bushfire survivors, like Sam be released?

The land that Hancock purchased cannot be protected by government as it is covered by exemptions which allow the harvest of native vegetation, regenerating native forests, as well as 'plantations'. The Victorian Plantations Corporation Act overrides all other legislation. The land is deemed to be private land yet Local Government cannot stop Hancock logging koala habitat as there is no provision in the Planning Scheme to protect either the species or habitat.

Likewise both State and Federal Government's refuse to recognise processes that threaten this species. It is a disgrace that the Koala is recognised internationally but not nationally.  The United States listed the Koala in 2000 under the US Endangered Species Act as threatened across its entire range.  Yet nothing is done in Australia to protect the species. In two generations the Victorian Koala could be gone. The koala is also under threat from climate change, according to recent research by the University of Sydney, which shows rising carbon dioxide levels are killing nutrients in the plants they eat. The higher elevation forests, critical to the survival of the Koala is also under climate change threat, through decreased rainfall, increased likelihood of wildfires and logging its remaining habitat.

Let's not see Sam's death be in vain. Immediate action needs to be undertaken by all levels of Government to protect as much koala habitat as possibly immediately and both John Brumby and HVP need to get serious about forest protection in the Strzelecki Ranges.

For more information contact;
Anthony Amis (03) 9419 8700, Susie Zent 51 691 588