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Environment and Communications References Committee
01/08/2011
Status, health and sustainability of Australia's koala population

AMIS, Mr Anthony, Land Use Researcher, Friends of the Earth

[09:49]

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you for coming today. The committee has received submissions as submissions 50 and 69, respectively. We ask if you want to make any alterations or amendments to those submissions.

Mr Amis : No alterations, but I have added some additional material which I have handed to Chris today. That includes an as-yet unpublished but soon-to-be published scientific report by Tristan Lee from the University of Sydney called Genetic analysis reveals a distinct and highly diverse koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) population in South Gippsland, Victoria, Australia.I have also included for the committee some observations from some wildlife shelters. One is from the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter and another is from the Animal Clinic Morwell. They have observations about the differences between Strzelecki koalas and the translocated populations of koalas.

ACTING CHAIR: You have got three documents there?

Mr Amis : Three documents.

ACTING CHAIR: And you want to table one of those?

Mr Amis : I want to table all of them.

ACTING CHAIR: All of them?

Mr Amis : Yes.

ACTING CHAIR: Okay. It is important for you to know that they will then be published as part of the proceedings.

Mr Amis : The scientific report cannot be published until it is published by the academic journal in which it is going to be published.

ACTING CHAIR: That leaves two.

Mr Amis : I am happy for the other two to be published.

ACTING CHAIR: There being no objection, the committee is happy to accept those. Thank you, Mr Amis. You might like to make an opening statement before we go to questions.

Mr Amis : I would like to quote from the publication that is soon to be produced by the University of Sydney. It says: 'The South Gippsland population had higher genetic diversity than French Island and Mornington Peninsula animals. The level of genetic diversity found in the South Gippsland population is the highest reported in Victoria and is comparable to the highest levels of genetic diversity in any koala population reported so far in Australia.'

ACTING CHAIR: Can I just interrupt there, Mr Amis, to ask whether the South Gippsland population and the Strzelecki population are different or the same?

Mr Amis : In this study the South Gippsland and Strzelecki koalas are the same. This report follows on from a lot of work done in the nineties by Bronwyn Houlden. She also highlighted the fact that the Strzelecki-South Gippsland koala population has unique genetic attributes. In terms of management, although the Victorian state government has identified the South Gippsland population as a priority population for study, there are currently no management plans specific to koalas in the South Gippsland region. If logging in the Strzelecki Ranges causes further habitat fragmentation of the South Gippsland habitat, it may isolate koala populations and accelerate a genetic drift. It is essential that logging plans incorporate measures to maintain koala gene flow between populations in logging areas and that only minimal habitat is removed. Such measures need to include substantial migration corridors. Previous studies indicate that a variety of landscape features can present barriers to koala gene flow in the Sydney region and therefore that the corridors will need to take into account the presence of roads or housing and contain preferred koala habitat.

I also want to raise some observed problems with the translocated populations that have been found near wildlife shelters. Dr John Butler of the Animal Clinic Morwell has written that there was a very significant mortality rate from the fires on Black Saturday in February 2009. I think 20,000 hectares of Strzelecki forest was burnt. Since the fires we have seen a greater number of local koalas with stress related conditions. He has observed firsthand the effects of low genetic diversity on populations such as the Raymond Island, Leongatha and Sandy Point area koalas. He has also seen koalas with disease and health compromise resulting from translocation attempts and from reproduction control techniques used by the Victorian government departments. A major concern is that we are continually dealing with situations in which volunteers are trying to remedy this situation with little help from outside sources. It appears that even government directed programs such as koala translocations and breeding control programs are of doubtful success as far as the future of a genetically diverse and robust population goes.

I want to now bring up some things from the Rawson publication. The Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter have observed numerous problems with the translocated populations. There have been reports of an eye disorder known as optic nerve coloboma, which affects normal nerve conduction. Vision can be disrupted and vision impairment can ensure. The Raymond Island populations appear to be suffering from chewing and absorption problems. The Melbourne Zoo's post mortems on two affected koalas has led them to change their thinking on this. They did think it was caused by a narrow lower mandible. But they now think that it could well be a tongue muscle that does not enable the koala to feed properly and thus large amounts of gum matter is drooled from both sides of the lower mouth rather than masticated and swallowed, leading to malnourishment, failure to thrive and fungal and bacterial infections.

Observations of Sandy Point koalas, where there was an estimated population of 2,000 in the 1980s but where there is no more than a handful today, has detected odd morphological differences and odd behavioural traits in comparison to the general population. Heads have been observed to be significantly rounder or flatter, with narrow mouths, smaller eye sockets—pin eyes—and limited muscle mass in the upper shoulders. The average condition score for these animals is two out of five. The odd behaviour includes clumsy and uncoordinated movement. The presentation is similar to Down syndrome but could simply be problems with bone growth instead. However, there has not been any research conducted into this population to ascertain the issue.

There are also big issues with hormone implants in translocated animals. We have found on post-mortem the uterus in a sterilised koala to be no more than shrivelled grey matter and this individual had a dependent, malnourished and dehydrated one kilogram to five kilogram back-carried young koala that it was not lactating for. It is imperative that any koala that is considered for sterilisation or translocation is given a full medical health assessment, including blood analysis, to ensure that viable and fit animals are being selected.

That is about all that I need to add. I would like to give my apologies for Susie Zent not appearing. She is our koala expert, but her father is very ill at the moment so she could not be present today.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. I hope it goes well for her. Could you tell the committee a bit more about translocation and how much of that is occurring in Victoria or elsewhere that you know about?

Mr Amis : I could not give exact numbers. But there were a handful of koalas moved to French Island in the 1890s. Every koala population throughout Victoria—apart from the South Gippsland Strzelecki population—has been sourced from those animals that were moved to French Island in the 1890s.

ACTING CHAIR: Where did they come from?

Mr Amis : Apparently, they came from South Gippsland. But you would need to talk to an expert on the history about that.

ACTING CHAIR: Is translocation still occurring?

Mr Amis : As far as I know, it is. But you would have to ask the environment department for the details on that.

ACTING CHAIR: Do you have any information for the committee about the numbers of South Gippsland koalas as distinct from the wider population?

Mr Amis : There has been no population survey at all. We have trying to raise funds to get some experts down to do the count, but we have been unsuccessful with that at the moment, so it is unknown.

ACTING CHAIR: You mentioned the bushfires. Has there been any assessment of the numbers of koalas that were eliminated by the bushfires?

Mr Amis : All we have heard are rumours. But we have heard rumours that potentially hundreds of koalas were killed. We also know that the animal shelters have taken in quite a few burnt animals. Some key areas in the northern Strzeleckis were burnt. Key koala breeding grounds were totally burnt out on that day in the Jeeralang Hills.

ACTING CHAIR: I think we might get evidence later about the logging in the Strzelecki Ranges region, which is largely, if I am not wrong, on private land. What is your information about the impact there? You talked about keeping corridors for the movement of animals when logging occurs. Can you give the committee any further information about that?

Mr Amis : We have been observing the logging practices down there since the mid-1990s. You have to understand that the history of the Strzelecki forest is that, up to about the mid-1990s, much of the area was classed as native forest. There was an act of parliament in Victoria, the Victorian plantation corporations legislation, which altered the land tenure for a lot of the southern Strzeleckis and it was classed as plantation overnight. A lot of these forests were established in the sixties and seventies through a variety of techniques by the department of forestry at the time. All of a sudden, at the stroke of a pen, they were then classed as plantation. In 1998 those areas were bought out by Hancock Victorian Plantations. They were interested mainly in the mountain ash reforestation that had occurred. There were several contracts, as I understand it, which would feed into the Australian Paper pulp mill at Maryvale.

Since that time—I could be wrong on this—about 700 to 800 hectares of mountain ash a year has been logged. A large proportion of that is then replanted to shining gum. Mountain ash is a koala feed source. Shining gum is not. Even if you believe the statements that you will probably hear later in the day from Hancock that they do not log native forests, we have had a massive conversion in the area from koala feed to non-koala feed. The other thing you have to factor in is that a lot of the ash areas were established next to native forests and some natural seeding has occurred. Under the VPC act essentially anything grown within the plantation boundaries is regarded as plantation, whether it is native vegetation or not. Hancock do leave some trees here and there, but we have observed over the years that a lot of native trees, Indigenous forest other than ash, have been logged by the company, including prime koala feed trees.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Cameron, do you have a question?

Senator CAMERON: No, I have no questions.

Senator McKENZIE: Anthony, you have obviously got quite a passion for this and have been looking at it for a long time. I was wondering why successive Victorian governments have not recognised the Strzelecki koala as a separate population.

Mr Amis : That is a good question. I have not really got the answer to that. I presume they thought that, because they were seeing supposed increases in populations through the translocation program, the koala population was increasing. But, as I have pointed out, there could be a lot of problems with the health issues of the translocated populations. The Strzelecki population was essentially—I will not say wiped out—basically given short shrift by successive Victorian governments. Effectively they privatised almost its entire habitat by the stroke of a pen in the nineties, so it is not something to be very proud of.

Senator McKENZIE: I have one more question for some clarification in terms of what Professor Carrick was saying earlier about the genetic diversity of the different koala populations and how Queensland and New South Wales are one batch and South Australia and Victoria are another. Yet, in your submission, you were saying that the Strzelecki population is one of the most diverse in Australia.

Mr Amis : Yes, in terms of the recent science and the work of Barbara Houlden it definitely is. We are calling for the Strzelecki South Gippsland population to be treated as a separate management unit, separate to the other populations in South Australia and Victoria. The South Australian populations were also the result of translocations from the French Island stock. So the Strzelecki one is vital to preserve its unique genetic attributes.

Senator McKENZIE: In your opinion, there would be three genetic groups of koala populations?

Mr Amis : I cannot comment on what is happening in New South Wales, particularly around the Eden area. I understand that there are some very important populations there. My work is focused only on what is happening in South Gippsland and the Strzelecki Ranges.

Senator DI NATALE: Thank you for your presentation. Can you tell me a bit about the 2008 Cores and Links agreement, struck between Hancock and the state government, which obviously was controversial at the time and whether it has provided adequate habitat and corridors for the koala population in that area?

Mr Amis : It is a very long story. In 2006 the state environment minister announced a new reserve in the Strzelecki Ranges, which would have protected key areas such as College Creek and the Jack River and other areas down there as well. That agreement was overturned. The major sticking point there was contract volumes. Hancock said they were under contract obligations to the Maryvale pulp mill and they needed to up the amount of native forest that may have to be logged if we had College Creek and some other areas set aside. That agreement fell through.

We had a new agreement set up by the CO of Hancock and the new conservation minister at the time, Gavin Jennings, which allowed for a clear-fell of about 1,500 hectares of ash in the Cores and Links region, including the logging of College Creek. There was also some native forest set aside which, arguably, Hancock were not going to touch anyway. But that was added as a no-go area, which was about 20,000 hectares. Of that, maybe half of that would be good koala habitat, but I cannot be sure. A lot of the area to be reserved includes drainage lines in pine plantations and other areas which are of high-conservation quality. There is some good stuff there but, by and large, there would be a fair amount of bush in there that would not have a high conservation value. We had the double whammy in that we had the fires in 2009, which knocked out 20,000 hectares on the north face and, a week after the fires came through, we had logging commence in College Creek, which was observed to be full of koalas and to be of national significance for its conservation attributes.

The original Cores and Links agreement was designed to protect the Strzelecki cool temperate rainforest. That was its core conservation imperative. Unfortunately, we have an agreement, but they are allowed to log 1,500 of some of the most contentious areas which include areas in close proximity to rainforest.

ACTING CHAIR: Again, with respect to the differentiation between the Strzelecki and the South Gippsland koala population and the rest of the population which may have, in the 1890s, come from that population but been genetically confined to the individuals that went to French Island, can you tell the committee any more about what is known about genetic differences between the two populations?

Mr Amis : Only what is in those reports. As I said earlier, the Strzelecki-South Gippsland population, as it stands, is one of the most genetically diverse populations in Australia. Essentially, the translocated populations do not have that same level of diversity. In rough terms, you could say many were suffering from inbreeding. I guess you could say that the Strzelecki population is more robust, healthier and larger. You would need to talk to Suzie. She has done a lot more work on it than I have.

ACTING CHAIR: You mentioned logging on, I presume, the south side of the ranges, having been affected by the bushfires.

Mr Amis : The fires were mainly on the north and the logging was basically south and north.

ACTING CHAIR: Was that clear-fell or was it selective logging?

Mr Amis : It was clear-fell.

ACTING CHAIR: You have said there was a population of koalas in there. Has there been any monitoring of that population and have there been any results of the logging?

Mr Amis : There has been no monitoring, but since College Creek has been logged—it is an 800 hectare catchment and probably 360 hectares was logged—we have seen one koala down there in the last two years. I am not sure whether the koalas will move back there in time.

ACTING CHAIR: Was an assessment done of the number of koalas before the logging?

Mr Amis : No. We do not have any koala population numbers in the Strzeleckis whatsoever; it just has not been done.

ACTING CHAIR: It is really just anecdotal rather than scientific?

Mr Amis : That is right. We are lacking the science on the numbers. If you get a massive bushfire hit, and a large conversion of ash to nitens, it is not looking too good.

Senator CAMERON: The forestry industry, in response to some of the questions raised during the previous hearing, has responded by saying there are lots of benefits in terms of the forestry industry for koalas and wildlife populations. They put out a list of issues, and I would like you to comment on that. They say they undertake fire management and weed and pest management and that feral animals such as wild dogs and pigs are removed. They say they put strategic infrastructure in the forests such as roads, fire towers and water points and that ecological management is undertaken. They say this is actually a benefit above where we were previously when there was clear felling and agricultural land destroyed the habitat completely. Do you have a view on these positive aspects the forestry industry is drawing our attention to?

Mr Amis : The forestry industry employs public relations consultants and I would say a lot of it would be spin. I am sure there might be some positives that come with some of the activities that the forestry companies do, but what we have seen on the ground in the area where we look in the last 15 years has been extremely negative.

Senator CAMERON: They also say that where a wedge tailed eagle nest is discovered they have a 10-kilometre no felling policy. Would that be an option for koalas as well?

Mr Amis : That would be very nice!

Senator CAMERON: Would that be a 10-kilometre radius, or what?

Mr Amis : If koalas were sited near logging operations and there was a rule that no logging could occur will within 10 kilometres of where that koala has been observed, I think our organisation would support that!

Senator CAMERON: Would that be practical in terms of ongoing business activities?

Mr Amis : Probably not. Part of the problem we have down there is the Maryvale pulp mill. They are taking hundreds of thousands of cubic metres out of the Strzeleckis each year, which they are buying from Hancock. Those supply contracts, and the privatisation of what was once state forest, are making our task extremely difficult. We would be lucky to get a 50-metre exclusion zone around a koala site, let alone a 10-kilometre exclusion zone.

Senator CAMERON: Do you think forestry and koalas can coexist?

Mr Amis : In a dream they probably could. I think that if you had minimal logging of areas—let us say you took out a couple of trees per hectare—it could potentially work. But the demands of the industry are to knock out entire catchment areas, and the scale of the industry does not allow for ecological concerns as far as our organisation is concerned. The scale of the industry is way too big; it does not have a soft touch.

Proceedings suspended from 10:15 to 10:37