The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

In 1991, Australian publishers Allen & Unwin, the Aussie buyout of the antipodean subsidiary of the venerable British publisher that gave us JRR Tolkien, published an original political and environmental history of Australia: William J Lines’ Taming The Great South Land – a history of the conquest of nature in Australia.

It was, and remains, an eye-opener and a page-turner. All our past, present and future environmental hotspots are covered. Squatters and selectors,  rabbits and real estate, hydro and homosexuals, uranium and aluminum, environmental degradation and deforestation, and the trials of our indigenous fellow-citizens who who up until a referendum in 1967 were classified as fauna and excluded from censuses. 

Behind many of the names that are attached to our suburbs, our highways, our rivers and our mountains are the names of dead white men who were aware of, even witnessed, and were often complicit in “dark deeds in a sunny land”. Perhaps I shall write more on this at a later date, but meanwhile, the following is what Lines has to say about our iconic wildlife, and particularly, our endangered koalas.

At the beginning of white settlement, it is believed that there were millions of koalas across Australia. But their’ perennial paradox and their doom has been that they and humans covet the same habitats – good land and good soil. We have always sought to acquire, clear and develop the land they like for timber, for farmland and for development. Research by the World Wildlife Fund has shown that eastern Australia is one of eleven deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Lines writes that at the turn of the twentieth century, state governments were less concerned with planting trees than with “how to kill a forest quickly”. “Elsewhere in Australia, “settlers regarded native animals an obstacle to development, the equal of native trees. The morality of development sanctioned virtually unlimited increases in the quantity of humans and tolerated virtually any decrease in the populations of other life forms – except animals directly useful to humans, such as sheep and cattle”. 

Settlers and professional hunters therefore shot anything that moved in the bush. Around the turn of the century, encouraged by an international demand for fur – primarily for the fashionably consciousness in Britain and the US – hunters began killing large numbers of koalas. In 1908, 58,000 koalas passed through the Sydney markets. In1924 over two million were exported from the eastern states. By the late twenties, the total total nationwide is reckoned to have been about eight million. 

By the end of the Great War the koala was extinct in South Australia. Other native animals survived, however, so in 1920, SA removed the brush-tailed possum from the protected list. Within four months, hunters trapped more than 100 000. As a consequence of hunting and habitat destruction, over 70 percent of native land mammals in South Australia are now extinct, extremely rare or uncommon and endangered.

In 1927 the Queensland government declared open season on possums and koalas. The eradication of wild animals, the government believed, promoted closer settlement. Despite widespread protest the government persisted the slaughter, and within months 10 000 trappers disposed of over one million possums and 600 000 koalas – more than the total number of koalas which remain alive in the whole of Australia today. The carnage caused the virtual elimination of koalas from Queensland. 

Four years later New South Wales declared open season on possums and during June and July 1931, hunters and trappers brought over 800 000 possum skins to market. To avoid offending the sensibilities of city nature lovers, merchants marketed possum as chinchilla and koala skins as wombat. 

Efforts to protect the koala have and remain a matter of “one step forwards, two steps back”. To burnish their dubious environmental credentials, governments broadcast their good intentions, announce inquiries and censuses, and then withdraw discretely in the face of all-too-friendly fire from political and industrial interest groups and their lobbyists. A WWF scientist has remarked that ”drop bears have more teeth than of the (National Koala Conservation and Management) Strategy”. It was not just on the Big Rock Candy Mountain that the cops had wooden legs and the bulldogs, rubber teeth.

In her masterful and lyrically beautiful “Fathoms – the the world in the whale” (Scribe 2020), – the Sydney Morning Herald called it a “a marvelous work of haunted wonder” – Australian author Rebecca Griggs notes how we earthlings anthropomorphized the leviathan of the deep as the symbol and indeed monument to our fall from environmental grace and our quixotic hopes for a return to Eden. Writer and author Stephanie Wood attaches a similar symbolism to Australia’s iconic marsupial in a well-written feature on our koalas’ dire straits. We reproduce this in full below. 

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it is usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so”, she writes. Echoing Griggs, she asks: “if we can’t save koalas, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to save ourselves”.

See also In That Howling Infinite: Losing Earth – Tarkeeth and other matters environmental

Featured photograph: In the thirty years we have owned our property in Tarkeeth Forest, much of which has been designated primary koala habitat, we have heard koalas in the surrounding forest, but , we have never seen one – until the day after Christmas last year. Meet Chrissy Dunggir (that’s Gumbaynggirr for koala).

How good were koalas?’: A national treasure in peril

Dwindling habitat. Climate change. Mega-bushfires. Koalas face dire threats, yet politicians continue to obfuscate.

Stephanie Wood, Sydney Morning Herald 6th February 2021

A koala in a tree on Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

Kangaroo Island, South Australia: “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.” Ricky Carioti, Washington Post/Getty
Every summer for a decade now, the curious photos have surfaced: a koala gulping water from a firefighter’s bottle, a koala drinking from a watering can, another on its belly trying to slurp from a swimming pool. By late 2019, images were popping up daily: a koala clinging to a bike as a cyclist tipped water into its mouth, another drinking from a pot of water while a dog stood nearby. In northern NSW near Moree, one was photographed in the middle of a road after rain, its curling pink tongue licking a puddle.

The comments came from around the world: “OMG, so cute” and “How adorable!”

But there was something unsettling about the images; koalas don’t drink water, they get the moisture they need from gum leaves. Don’t they? Even scientists and koala experts who knew the species was in peril were unlikely to have realised just how portentous the images were.

In spring 2019, the fires started.

There was nothing cute about the new images, which came in a flood. Koalas with bandaged paws and scorched ears nestling in laundry baskets in a wildlife volunteer’s lounge room. A huddled koala trying to drink from a Kangaroo Island dam, the charred carcass of another nearby. A woman stripped down to her bra running out of a blaze near Port Macquarie holding a koala in her shirt; if you watched the video, you heard the koala mewling in pain as the woman doused it in water.

As the imagery spread and the world’s attention focused on this devastating escalation of the koala crisis, the animal became a global symbol of environmental grief and fear. Prayers and messages of love rained down. So did money. Port Macquarie’s Koala Hospital created a GoFundMe account with a $25,000 goal and got nearly $8 million. From Kazakhstan to Kentucky, people sewed mittens for burnt paws. A cosmetics firm made eucalyptus-scented, koala-shaped soap to raise funds. A little boy in Massachusetts moulded the marsupials in clay and his parents gave one to every person who donated more than $50 to the cause. A friend in London couldn’t stop crying. “You’re not looking at koala pics again, are you, Mum?” her daughter asked.

At the time of white settlement, it is believed there were millions of koalas across our continent. Two centuries later, before the 2019-20 fires, the most authoritative study available estimated 331,000 koalas remained in the wild nationally, 79,000 of which were in Queensland and 36,000 in NSW. But koala counting is a notoriously difficult exercise and the 2012 study, led by University of Queensland conservation biologist Dr Christine Adams-Hosking and drawing on the research of a number of koala experts, noted that in Queensland, population estimates ranged from 33,000 to 153,000, and in NSW from 14,000 to 73,000.

But if the numbers aren’t firm, one thing is: even before the fires, koala populations had been declining precipitously. Studies carried out in 2020 by Dr Steve Phillips, principal research scientist at environmental consultancy Biolink, found that in the past two decades, Queensland had lost half its koalas, and NSW a third. Experts are still trying to tally the full extent of Black Summer’s carnage but University of Sydney research found 61,000 koalas nationally and 8000 in NSW were injured, displaced or died during the fires.

We did this. Since settlement, our needs have always trumped those of koalas. We needed the land their trees were on. Sometimes we shot them to eat. In an article in The Sydney Morning Herald in June 1851, the author noted that Aboriginal people called the creature a “kola” and settlers described it as “the native bear or monkey”. It was an animal with a “singular aspect”, he wrote, “its appearance is a sort of caricature upon gentlemen of the legal profession with their wigs on. It is said to be good eating, but is not frequently met with …”

“The response to the majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’.”

We wanted their furs. From the late 19th century to the end of the 1920s, hunters slaughtered up to eight million koalas nationally to supply a voracious international fur market. Most went to England and the US, where they were described as “wombat fur” and often became part of that Jazz Age wardrobe essential, the fur collar wrap coat. By the late 1930s, the animal was considered extinct in South Australia and critically depleted elsewhere.

Still we wanted more: more land for farms and tree plantations and highways and developments of massive houses with manicured gardens. Developers saw dollar signs, their bulldozers kept moving. With all that came fast cars, feral animals, family pets and disease. A submission from a koala activist in northern NSW’s Ballina to the NSW parliamentary inquiry listed in wretched detail the fate of some local creatures: “Healthy breeding female, hit by car”; “Female, dog attack, dead”; “Male, retrovirus, ulcers in mouth and throat, hadn’t eaten for probably [two] weeks, maggots down throat while still alive, found sitting on a road after a storm”.

Above all else, our insatiable needs have led to the greatest threats koalas face: climate change and its handmaidens, more extreme droughts and bushfires. But despite the international spotlight the 2019-20 fires threw on the urgency of the species’ plight, one year on, governments have taken little meaningful action to protect the marsupial and its habitat.

The NSW Environment Minister, Matt Kean, says he wants to double koala numbers in the state by 2050 but in January his government announced it would fully commit to only 11 of the upper house inquiry’s 42 recommendations designed to protect koalas. Conservationists and koala scientists were horrified. “It’s really disheartening that the response to the vast majority of recommendations were ‘Support in principle’ or ‘Noted’, which to me is saying, ‘We’re doing nothing’,” Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan says. “In koala circles, everyone’s disgusted.”

Meanwhile, for months through 2020 the koala became a political football after the Deputy Premier and National Party Leader, John Barilaro, staged a failed rebellion against his own government over koala policy. The result of the subsequent political wrangling was that, by the end of the year, policy to protect the species was weaker than it had been at the start.

Experts also point to the federal government’s shilly-shallying. Key national measures to protect the koala are either out of date or yet to be completed. “The koala was listed as a vulnerable species by the federal government in 2012; seven years later, we’re still waiting for a national koala recovery plan,” says Biolink’s Steve Phillips.

And what of the three billion other animals killed or displaced by last summer’s fires? One million lumbering wombats. More than 100,000 echidnas. Millions of kangaroos and wallabies; bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos. A terrible number of birds, lizards and frogs. The uncounted pretty beetles, butterflies and bugs. Well, it’s hard to spare too much emotional energy for a frill-neck lizard. But a koala … we can mourn a koala.

Scientists who study other species despair at the attention the koala gets. But a koala is emblematic; we feel in our bones that it says something important about us as Australians. “Koalas are woven into the narrative of Australia,” says Danielle Celermajer, professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Sydney and the author of the recently released book Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future. Dr Kellie Leigh, a koala scientist in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, offers an anthropomorphic explanation for why they have such a profound place in our psyche. “The whole thing about koalas is the head shape, with the forward-facing eyes and the big round head that instinctively reminds people of a human baby,” she says, adding that mobilising resources for koalas is not a single-species approach.

“They get people engaged in conservation who otherwise wouldn’t be.” The koala is also an “umbrella species”, depending on a broad range of habitats which are home to many other species. Put measures in place to protect koalas in the wild and other creatures will also be saved.

Given that fact, perhaps we should ask an inverse question: if we can’t save koalas, what can we save? And if we can’t save koalas, can we save ourselves?

A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires.
A rolled-up towel serves as a tree-trunk substitute for this sedated koala during ANU research into the impact of bushfires. Micheal Weinhardt

Kellie Leigh names many of the Blue Mountains koalas she studies after gods “because we’re on the Mount Olympus for koalas … we’ve had Medusa, Mars, Athena”. The Greek mountain is the home of the gods and famously biodiverse. The Blue Mountains is – was – home to a surprising and remarkable population of koalas.

The mountains were long thought not to be propitious koala habitat, although records show there were at least some in residence. In a letter to the Sydney weekly The Catholic Press in 1921, a reader described a “shooting expedition” to Hazelbrook, during which her uncle shot a koala. She added that at one time, her family had kept at their Paddington home in Sydney four “tame native bears”, which had been captured in the mountains. After a month, one by one, they died. The last survivor sat in a backyard peach tree crying all night until the family decided to liberate it and “one evening at dusk we took it to Bellevue Hill”. The fur trade was believed to have knocked out any remaining in the mountains.

In 2013, during the devastating Blue Mountains bushfires, three koalas were seen emerging to seek water around the town of Winmalee. Another climbed a pole in a backyard near Mountain Lagoon. “It was like, ‘Hey, there are koalas … they haven’t been on record for a long time, what’s going on?’ ”, says Leigh, executive director of the not-for-profit Science for Wildlife, which in 2014 started to survey koalas at five sites in the mountains.

This koala, named Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in the Blue Mountains in NSW.
This koala,Medusa, is being monitored by Science for Wildlife in Kanangra-Boyd NP, the
Blue Mountains, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Their significance could not be understated: they were largely within national park boundaries so developers could not get near them, they seemed to be breeding like rabbits and, most importantly, a study with which Leigh was involved found they had the highest genetic diversity within a koala population of any in Australia. Darwin 101: genetic variation individuals in a species allows for its adaptation to changing environmental circumstances and so ensures the survival of the species. Leigh dared to hope that the Blue Mountains koalas might one day help recolonise the broader World Heritage area.

Photo: Eddie Jim.

But genetic variation is of no assistance to a koala in the event of a mega-fire. In late October 2019, Leigh’s teams were surveying sites in Kanangra-Boyd National Park and in the Megalong Valley when lightning ignited a blaze 100 kilometres or so to the north. That fire, dubbed the Gospers Mountain fire, or “the monster”, would become Australia’s largest ever. In the days that followed, it raced in from the north, licking up Leigh’s survey sites in the south-east Wollemi National Park and on Newnes Plateau. Leigh pulled her teams out of the bush.

She floated an idea with the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: could she attempt to rescue some of the koalas at the Kanangra-Boyd site? “At the 12th hour we got a ‘yes’. ” Within two days, a Victorian climbing team had flown in and volunteers had started to track the radio signals coming from the koalas’ collars and scour canopies for creatures without collars. Two days after that, 12 koalas had been temporarily moved to Taronga Zoo.

It was a small triumph in a great tragedy. Only one of Leigh’s study sites – in the Lower Blue Mountains, near where residential areas were protected by firefighting efforts – was unaffected by the fires. She estimates that 80 per cent of the mountains’ koala habitat was burnt and perhaps 1000 animals died, and is now madly working to assess what koalas remain and what potential there is for them to recolonise. “It totally changed this little picture of hope we had,” says Leigh. “It was like, ‘Okay, it’s not a source population any more.’”

Koalas rescued from bushfires returned to their native habitat

Pockets of optimism remain. In November, I followed Leigh and a VHF signal along a ridge line within the Kanangra-Boyd site looking for Kali, one of the 12 koalas which had a Taronga Zoo holiday. The lovely hum of the bush in late spring: rising warmth, birdsong, a darting dragonfly. Only months ago, soon after the 12 were rescued, fire raced through here; the trees are blackened still and there is a subliminal scent of something burnt. But the young epicormic shoots are lush and our feet crunch over new bracken fern and lomandra grass. And there, high in a narrow-leaved peppermint gum (Eucalyptus radiata), is Kali.

“Kali” is the Hindu goddess of death and destruction but is also associated with motherhood and rebirth. There could not be a more appropriate name for this creature half-concealed behind branches above us. Leigh “pouch-checked” Kali for a joey when she was rescued and was surprised not to find one. “I was like, ‘That’s unusual, she’s having a year off breeding.’ ” When Kali was returned to the wild in late March, a joey was in her pouch, that bonus baby peeking out now from her position snuggled on her mother’s back.

Leigh has tracked Kali for nearly four years. “If she was a person, she’d be sitting there with a crocheted rug and a cup of Earl Grey tea watching over the kids,” says Leigh. “She’s a homebody; she breeds every year, has a joey every year and doesn’t go far; she has one of the smaller home ranges of those we have tracked.” But for a homebody, Kali is a rule-breaker, as are the other koalas on the mountains.

Koalas are generally known to like trees on richer soils, but the mountains are sandstone country. Generally, the rule is that they live below 800 metres in altitude, but two of Leigh’s sites, including Kanangra-Boyd, are above 1000 metres and often white in winter. It was not thought that the silvertop ash (Eucalyptus sieberi) was a food source but here, they eat it delightedly. Additionally, the Kanangra-Boyd population is one of only two NSW koala populations to be chlamydia-free. “So it seems to be, or was, a thriving, growing population in an area that’s above the climate envelope for koalas, using tree species they shouldn’t,” says Leigh. “Yeah, they’re just a bunch of rule-breakers.”

The story of Kali and her compatriots is just one of dozens of koala stories to have emerged from the fire grounds. Taken together, they shed some light on the challenges of saving the species: there are hundreds of stakeholders working in the field, from wildlife rescuers to scientists and multiple points of disagreement; the science is dense but there are still big gaps in knowledge about the creature; and, depending on where they live, koalas have varying behaviours and face different threats.

Some of the most gut-wrenching images came out of Kangaroo Island, where tens of thousands of koalas are believed to have died from a pre-fire population of about 50,000. Evan Quartermain, head of programs for the Humane Society International Australia (HSI), travelled to the island to help with rescue attempts. “They were lying defeated on the ground, desperate for water. Usually they’d be doing all they could to get away from us.”

But it was a tragedy of animal welfare rather than species decline. In the late 19th century, three koalas were put on French Island in Victoria’s Western Port in an attempt to rescue the species from the fur trade’s devastation. Descendants of those koalas were later used to repopulate areas in Victoria and South Australia, including Kangaroo Island. But despite a widespread misconception that the island’s koalas can be used to replenish depleted mainland populations, they have issues resulting from inbreeding. “Their genetic diversity is very low,” says Sydney University associate professor and ecologist Mathew Crowther. “They’re a very bad source population.”

Additionally, before the fires, koala numbers on the island had ballooned to the point that they were putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Some proposed culling. Likewise, in parts of South Australia and Victoria, introduced koala populations breed so prolifically that they put untenable pressure on native vegetation. In 2015, The Age revealed that wildlife officials secretly culled 600 koalas in Victoria’s Cape Otway area. The animals were starving as a result of over-population.

The complexity of the subject matter is matched only by the confounding nature of koala politics and bureaucracy across federal, state and local levels. Federally, there’s a National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy but it’s out of date: it was developed before the east coast koala population was listed as vulnerable in 2012 and does not take into account updated predictions about climate change. “Drop bears have more teeth than the strategy,” conservation scientist Dr Stuart Blanch from WWF-Australia says.

Similarly, a recovery plan to bring koala populations back to health, a legislative requirement that followed the koala’s 2012 vulnerable listing, was to be finalised two years ago but remains undone. In June last year, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age that the government had been waiting on the states’ draft plans. In November, Ley announced an $18 million koala package, which will include a national audit of populations, health research and habitat restoration. But within days, 23 conservation groups had signed an open letter slamming the audit as a diversionary tactic and a waste of money. Research scientist Steve Phillips agrees. “It’s garbage … The numbers don’t matter, it’s about the rate of change that’s occurred. We already know what that rate of change is and the science is very strong that the animal is very clearly on a trajectory towards extinction.”

Meanwhile, the skirmishes that occupied the NSW government through 2020 showed the complexity of legislation governing environmental planning policy over koala habitats at a state level and the extent to which conservative ideology plays a role in the debate about saving the creature.

In September 2020, NSW Deputy Premier John Barilaro threatened to move his MPs to the crossbench over the State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that, among other things, increased the number of tree species identified as koala feed and habitat trees from 10 to 123. Many described his move as a “dummy spit” but, seen in context, it was more understandable: since 2016 the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has grabbed the heartland state electorates of Orange, Barwon and Murray and the Nationals are struggling to remain relevant. In claiming the policy was an assault on landholders’ property rights, Barilaro was appealing to his base (two-thirds of NSW’s koalas are on private land). He backed away from his threat but the political wounds were deep: a week or so later, the Nationals MP for Port Macquarie, Leslie Williams, defected to the Liberal Party. In a statement, Williams said her community rightly expected that policy should overshadow politics.

Related Article: Bushfires  Storms, tornadoes and explosions: Bushfires are getting stranger. How?

Dashcam Captures Speed Of Bushfire.

The machinations continued through spring as a bill amending the Local Land Services act (LLS), which regulates native vegetation management on private land, was passed by the lower house of Parliament but blocked in the upper house when Liberal MP Catherine Cusack crossed the floor to vote with Labor, the Greens and other crossbenchers. She told the chamber that she had never seen “such poor integrity of processes” which had “zero to do with protecting koalas”. She said: “It is to try to patch up a political disagreement … Far too many mistakes have been made already, many buried in regulatory complexity. But the trends, the science and the outcomes are very clear. We are failing, and this bill cannot possibly assist.”

During the state’s hottest November on record, the Premier, Gladys Berejiklian, sacked Cusack as parliamentary secretary for voting against the government and announced she would scrap the SEPP and revert to its predecessor – a weaker, 25-year-old koala habitat policy – until a new one was developed.

Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, NSW.
Kellie Leigh, at right, surveys the koala population in Kanangra-Boyd NP, NSW. Dominic Lorrimer

Kellie Leigh’s koalas might be rule-breakers but, mostly, koalas and people like the same habitats: good land, good soil types. “We always want to develop the land koalas like, that’s where we can grow our vegies and crops,” Leigh says. According to WWF international research, eastern Australia is one of 11 deforestation hotspots in the world, the only OECD country on the list.

Multiple koala experts I spoke to for this story noted that despite layers of bureaucracy and multiple koala plans and strategies, the hard decisions needed about the most important measure to save koalas aside from reversing climate change – habitat protection – are still not being taken. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s Cheyne Flanagan notes that the NSW government is taking some positive steps, including the development of a new koala strategy due to be released this year. But she says legislation to protect koala habitats is not tight enough.

“It’s still rape and pillage and open slather with regards to removal of habitat,” she says. NSW Greens MP Cate Faehrmann, who chaired the upper house inquiry into koalas, says that successive governments have made koala protection policies “complex and overlapping, but ultimately there’s hardly any of it that actually stops koala habitat being cleared”.

Meanwhile, Evan Quartermain from the Humane Society International Australia believes there is an untold element to the habitat loss story: “It’s the cumulative effect of smaller developments … death by a thousand cuts.” They don’t get much attention but they’re happening everywhere, all the time. Often, what is lost is the critical “corridors” koalas need to travel across the land.

But the overarching threat to koalas is climate change. Ahead of a firefront that ravaged the NSW Southern Tablelands in January 2020, more than 40 koalas were rescued and taken to the Australian National University for sanctuary. Scientists were appalled to discover that most were starving to death. “They were in that condition because of the extreme heat and the drought that set up those conditions for the fire to happen. The climate was killing them before the fires even got there,” says Dr Kara Youngentob, an ANU ecologist. Youngentob says she has now seen eucalypts, trees adapted to one of the driest climates in the world, dying from moisture stress. “Before this past summer happened, I had a hard time believing that eucalypts could get that desiccated … [they] can’t handle the type of climate they’re now experiencing.”

Conventional wisdom has long been that koalas don’t need to drink water because gum leaves provide all the moisture they need. But a new study led by Dr Valentina Mella, a research associate from the University of Sydney, captured koala drinking behaviour in the wild for the first time: researchers observed koalas licking water running down smooth tree trunks during rain.

Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”, says a researcher.
Usually, koalas get enough hydration from gum leaves. A scene like this in Gunnedah, NSW “really tells you there’s something wrong”.Kate Wilson

So what should we make of all the photographs of koalas drinking from humans’ water bottles and bird baths and pools? “That is very incredible behaviour; that really tells you there’s something wrong,” says Mella, who has preliminary data showing the moisture content of eucalyptus leaves is declining. “No wild animal would approach a human unless there was something to get from it … these animals can’t find water anywhere else.” (Experts caution against giving koalas water from a bottle because when they tip their head back to drink, water can get into their lungs, potentially causing aspiration pneumonia.) Youngentob says when koalas in the care of ANU during the fires drank a lot of water, it was an indication they’d sustained physiological stress. “Drinking is kind of their swansong,” she says. “When you see a koala drink a lot, it’s on its way out.”

“It’s about climate change … these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.”

Sometimes people try to tell Biolink’s Steve Phillips that the decline in koala numbers is primarily due to disease. “Oh, bullshit!” he replies. “Every time I see somebody try to hijack the koala conservation argument and mention disease as one of the driving factors, I go, ‘No, no, no.’ It’s about climate change, and the drying out of the landscape and these extreme temperature differentials that are just beyond the koala’s ability to adapt to.” Phillips has seen the climate envelope for where koalas can survive shrink dramatically. During surveys in the mid-1990s, he found thousands of koalas in the Pilliga forests of north-central NSW. He returned in 2019 and surveyed 108 sites. “We did not find one single bit of evidence of koalas being alive.” East of the Pilliga, the “koala capital” of Gunnedah had a koala population of nearly 13,000 in 2012. Phillips says that, by 2019, estimates were that about 90 per cent had gone. “This wave of extinction moving through from the west has taken out the Pilliga animals and now looks like it’s going to take out the Gunnedah population.”

What he says next makes me shiver. “I could go out into the Pilliga at night 15 years ago and drive along the road with a spotlight and see four koalas and three brushtail possums and a couple of ringtails and possibly a carpet snake and various other things. Now I can do that and I see nothing.” A night in the Australian bush, and there is no life.

Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd National Park in NSW in March last year. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.
Kellie Leigh releases Lakshmi and her joey, Ra, in Kanangra-Boyd NP in NSW March2020. The koalas had been evacuated to Taronga Zoo to escape the Gospers Mountain fire.Ian Brown

Why do we place so little value on the glorious, pulsing, sweet-smelling beauty of our landscapes and the creatures rustling within them? Why do we argue with what scientists tell us, scientists whose research is not published until it has undergone rigorous, peer-reviewed assessment? Why do we imagine things will go on as they always have?

Is it about greed and self-interest? HSI’s Evan Quartermain observes: “Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

Is it about priorities? Kellie Leigh’s mad scramble to save some of the Blue Mountains’ koalas was done without assistance from authorities. “All the firefighters were out protecting people and property,” she says. “There were no resources for wildlife.” Firefighters call it “asset protection” – protecting people and property.

“Whenever people are upset about protecting animals, it’s usually because they’ve got a financial stake in not doing so.”

But we diminish ourselves and imperil our own future when we take such a narrow, short-sighted view of assets and self-interest. Professor Danielle Celermajer wants people to recognise “we’re all earth beings … We are woven in relationships with other earth beings: animals, rivers, forests, rainforests, gum trees.” She rejects the idea that humans are in a different realm. “It’s a very pernicious fantasy we continue to indulge that everything else can go but we’ll be okay.”

On November 30, The Guardian published a story noting that international lawyers were developing plans for a crime of ecocide: criminalising destruction of the world’s ecosystems. On Twitter, Matt Haig, the acclaimed English author of the 2016 book Reasons to Stay Alive, posted a link to the story with the comment: “Ecological destruction is ultimately self-harm.”

The day before The Guardian story was published, a video of a koala under a lawn sprinkler in Bowenville, near Dalby in south-east Queensland, travelled around the world. “Even the koala bears are coming up with ways to stay cool there,” a perky TV presenter in Oklahoma City said. “That’s pretty cute.”

Dalby’s average maximum November temperature is 30.6°C. In November 2020, the maximum average temperature was 33.9°C. On November 29, the day the video of the koala under a sprinkler was shot, the thermometer hit 38.5°C. Watch the video. The koala is guzzling from the sprinkler head.

In December 2019, as an apocalyptic haze of smoke blanketed Sydney, thousands of people marched through the city demanding action on climate change. An image of one person’s placard pinged around social media: “How great were koalas?”

One thought on “The agony and extinction of Blinky Bill

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s