Conduct of the inquiry
On 17 November 2010 the Senate referred the matter of the status, health
and sustainability of Australia's koala population to the Environment and
Communications References Committee (the committee) for inquiry and report by 1
The inquiry formally commenced on 8 February 2011. The reporting date was
subsequently extended by the Senate to 24 August and later to 20 September 2011.
The terms of reference required that the committee have regard to:
(a) the iconic status of the koala and the history of its management;
(b) estimates of koala populations and the adequacy of current counting
(c) knowledge of koala habitat;
threats to koala habitat such as logging, land clearing, poor
management, attacks from feral and domestic animals, disease, roads and urban
(e) the listing of the koala under the Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999;
(f) the adequacy of the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy;
(g) appropriate future regulation for the protection of koala habitat;
(h) interaction of state and federal laws and regulations; and
(i) any other related matters.
The committee advertised the inquiry on its website and wrote to
relevant organisations inviting submissions by 8 February 2011. The inquiry was
advertised nationally in The Australian on 8 December 2010 and 2
February 2011. The committee received 101 submissions (see Appendix 1).
The committee also received two petitioning documents. The first,
received from the Koala Preservation Society of NSW, was signed by 2010
petitioners and called for the protection of existing koala habitat. The
second, received from Ms Meghan Halverson, was signed by 427 petitioners
and called for the species to be listed as 'endangered' or 'vulnerable'. The
text of these two petitions is reproduced in Appendix 2.
The committee held three public hearings: the first in Brisbane on 3
May, the second in Canberra on 19 May and the third in Melbourne on 1 August
2011 (see Appendix 3).
The committee also received a large amount of evidence in the form of
answers to questions on notice and additional information.
In this regard the committee notes the disappointing contribution provided by
the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and
Communities. Departmental officials gave evidence to the committee on 19 May
2011. Responses were to be returned three weeks later, on 9 June 2011. The
department's answers were provided to the committee over two months late, on 12
August 2011. Several of these late responses were evasive or did not attempt to
address the question which was asked.
The committee finds the department's performance in this regard unsatisfactory and
expects much higher standards in future.
The committee used this inquiry to trial online accessibility
arrangements of committee documents for people with vision impairment. Details
about the trial, including a report on the trial's outcomes, can be found on
the committee's website at: www.aph.gov.au/Senate/committee/ec_ctte/koalas/submissions_accessibility_trial/index.htm.
The remainder of this chapter provides background species information on
the Koala and highlights the iconic status of this unique Australian symbol.
Chapter 2 of this report examines the available information on
Australia's koala population, including counting methodologies, historical and
current estimates and data deficiencies;
Chapter 3 considers the various threats to koala habitat, including
urban development, forestry, mining, drought, bushfire and climate change,
while chapter 4 considers other threats such as disease, dog attacks and motor
Chapter 5 explores the status of the koala under state and federal
environmental protection laws, including the current assessment of whether to
list the koala as a threatened species under the Environment Protection and
Biodiversity Conservation Act; and
Finally, chapter 6 examines the national strategy designed to conserve
and manage koala numbers – the National Koala Conservation and Management
The committee would like to thank all the individuals, organisations and
local, state and federal governments and government departments that
contributed to this inquiry. The inquiry generated very strong public interest
with many supporters of koala advocacy organisations filling the public gallery
at each hearing.
The committee also notes that the majority of submissions came from
individuals and community groups who are passionate about the koala's wellbeing.
The committee acknowledges the significant commitment and effort made by these
individuals and organisations in submitting evidence and attending the public
The koala is a tree-dwelling, medium sized marsupial with a stocky body,
large rounded ears, sharp claws and variable but predominantly grey-coloured
Koalas in the south of Australia are larger than individuals in the
north, with a gradient in body weight from north to south occurring across the
koala's range. The average weight of males is 6.5 kilograms in Queensland,
compared with 12 kilograms in Victoria. Koalas in the north tend to have
shorter, silver-grey fur, whereas those in the south have longer, thicker,
brown-grey fur. Males are also generally larger than females.
The species is conventionally accepted as Phascolarctos cinereus
and is the only species in the family Phascolarctidae.
Three subspecies of koala were proposed by early taxonomists, based on
differences in the species' morphology across its geographical range: Phascolarctos
cinereus adjustus in Queensland, P. c. cinereus in New South Wales
and P. c. victor in Victoria.
According to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee (TSSC), the
state border subspecies boundaries are unlikely to represent natural barriers
to koala dispersal.
Studies by scientists have found relatively low levels of genetic
differentiation among the proposed subspecies, suggesting that physical
variations across the species' range may reflect different adaptations to
different climates rather than separate subspecies.
Southern koalas are able to be distinguished from northern koalas by physical
features such as fur colour and size. Some regional variation in the species is
This was a matter of considerable contention during the inquiry which is
discussed further in chapter 2.
Picture 1.1—The koala
Source: Queensland Department of
Environment and Resource Management. Reproduced with the permission of the Queensland
Department of Environment and Resource Management.
Life expectancy and reproduction
In the wild, koalas are estimated to live to 15 years for females and
more than 12 years for males. The life expectancy of koalas may be shortened
due to the presence of disease and other threats.
Female koalas can potentially produce up to one offspring each year,
with births occurring between October and May. Twins are occasionally recorded.
The gestation period of koalas is 35 days.
The newly-born koala lives in its mother's pouch for between 6 to 8 months. The
young joey then leaves the pouch and rides on its mother's back. Young koalas
are independent from 12 months of age.
Picture 1.2—Koala with joey,
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
Source: Australian Koala
Foundation. Reproduced with the permission of the Australian Koala Foundation.
The koala is not territorial and the home ranges of individuals
extensively overlap. Individuals tend to use the same set of trees, but
generally not at the same time. Home ranges are variable depending on the
location, with those in poorer habitats being larger than those in high quality
habitats. On average, males usually have larger home ranges than do females.
Koalas spend a lot of time alone, devoting little time to social
interactions. They do not tend to move much, under most conditions changing
trees only a few times a day. There is little evidence of longer movements by
individuals, though dispersing individuals, mostly young males, may
occasionally cover distances of several kilometres over land with little
Koalas have complex foraging strategies. The koala is a leaf-eating
specialist with its diet mainly restricted to foliage of Eucalyptus
Koalas have been observed sitting in or eating the leaves of up to 120 species
of eucalypt. Koalas may also consume foliage of related trees including Corymbia,
Angophora and Lophostemon and at times supplement their diet with
other species such as Leptospermum and Melaleuca. Preference
between tree species may be influenced by factors including region, season,
leaf chemistry, elevation, temperature, water content and soil nutrients.
Koalas also have a strong preference for individual trees within a species.
When koala populations reach high densities, their browsing preferences
can change the species composition of the local eucalypt community. This is
apparent in some areas of Victoria and South Australia where koalas have been
introduced and become abundant.
The committee heard evidence from Mr Chris Allen, a NSW Parks and
Wildlife service ecologist who appeared before the committee in a personal
capacity, about the very recent discovery that a koala population in Bredbo,
New South Wales eats bark as part of their diet. According to Mr Allen,
landowners in the area have been noticing chew marks in trees for over twenty
years. A recent study was conducted using infra-red movement sensitive cameras
to record nocturnal bark chewing.
The koalas were observed to chew through to the 'cambium' layer, eating
bark up the full height of the tree. The koalas would chew the bark and would
eat and digest some it. Mr Allen told the committee that it is currently
theorised that the koalas chew the bark of the trees to supplement their diet:
Our best guess is that within the sap flow of the tree there
is a mix of nutrients, minerals and moisture and probably they are accessing
one or a suite of nutrients, minerals and moisture to assist with their
The chewing is strategic on the part of the koala, as they repeatedly
target a specific tree species. On some occasions one specific tree would be
repeatedly targeted for chewing. Mr Allen told the committee that the frequent
chewing of a tree places the tree in a state of stress, changing the chemical
content of the tree. The tree then becomes more nutritious, making it an
important part of their diet.
In some instances trees have died as a result of stress from chewing.
The bark-chewing phenomenon is currently only recorded on the Monaro
plains in NSW, though is speculated to be more wide-spread.
Koalas inhabit a range of temperate, sub-tropical and tropical forest,
woodland and semi-arid communities dominated by eucalypt species. The
distribution of koalas is also affected by altitude (up to 800 metres above sea
level), temperature and leaf moisture. A discussion on the threats posed to
koala habitat is contained in Chapter 3.
Species range – historic and current
The koala is endemic to Australia, with its range extending from the
south east corner of South Australia to the north coast of Queensland and to
the west of the Great Dividing Range (see Figure 1). The range extends over 22°
of latitude and 18° of longitude.
According to the National Koala Conservation and Management Strategy
2009–2014, prior to European settlement the koalas' natural range occurred
...the broad band of eucalypt forest and woodland communities
extending from north-eastern Queensland to the south-eastern corner of South Australia.
The current distribution of Australia's koala population is scattered
throughout a similarly large region of the east-coast of the continent. Their
range extends from the south‑east corner of South Australia, through
Victoria, New South Wales and up to the north-east of Queensland. Figure 1
illustrates the approximate extent of the koala's distribution across
Australia, an area encompassing more than one million square kilometres.
Figure 1.1—Distribution of
Source: Threatened Species Scientific Committee, 'Advice
to the Minister for Environment, Protection, Heritage and the Arts from the
Threatened Species Scientific Committee on Amendment to the list of Threatened
Species under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act
1999', p. 38.
As a consequence of translocations, several koala populations also occur
outside the species' natural range. These include Kangaroo Island, the Eyre
Peninsula and Adelaide Hills in South Australia; and Phillip Island and French
Island in Victoria. Similarly there are introduced populations on several
islands off the Queensland coast including St Bees Island and Magnetic Island.
The spread of the koala is not evenly distributed across the species'
range. Individual populations are fragmented across the breadth of this range
as a result of vegetation clearing, fire, land management practices and
Population densities within states range from very high in isolated areas or
island populations within Victoria and South Australia to low across parts of
New South Wales and Queensland. Detailed information on the natural range of
the koala in each east coast jurisdiction is detailed in the Threatened Species
Scientific Committee's advice to the Environment Minister of September 2010.
A majority of the submissions received by the committee commented on the
iconic nature of the species.
Koalas were variously described as 'an icon of Australia's fauna';
the 'iconic Ambassador for the conservation of Australian native wildlife and
'a symbol of the Australian landscape and culture';
and 'a species of international significance'.
The koala is the faunal emblem of Queensland and according to the
Queensland government 'holds a special place in the hearts of Queenslanders.'
Imagery of the koala has permeated Australian cultural heritage for
nearly a century. The quintessential Australian children's classic Blinky
Bill (by Dorothy Wall) and Norman Lindsay's renowned children's book The
Magic Pudding (which features Bunyip Bluegum the koala) are symbolic
of the koala's significance to Australia's national identity.
The koala is also of great cultural significance to many indigenous Australians.
For example the Coastwatchers Association told the committee that 'the koala is
a highly significant ancestor, a philosopher, astronomer and linguist...' to
the indigenous cultures of the Eurobodalla area in NSW.
Similarly, the Conservation Council ACT Region informed the committee that
koalas 'form an important part of the spiritual and cultural life and are central
to many Dreamtime stories' for the indigenous people of the far south coast of
Dr Alistair Melzer of the Koala Research Centre of Central Queensland described
the power of human's 'deep-seated' emotional connection to the koala as the
reason for its iconic status:
The appeal of the koala seems almost primal in humans. This
seems to be a consequence of the appearance of the face (large round eyes,
round face, soft fur and rounded soft ears), the tendency of the animals to
grasp (hug) when held, and the passive response when encountered.
This point was driven home by the youngest contributor to this inquiry,
11 year old Ms Sarah Halverson who told the committee:
...I really love the koala. They are such an incredible
animal. The first time I met a koala I just gazed into its eyes and I knew that
I wanted to protect it from going extinct. We need to list it as critically
endangered because they are just the sweetest animal.
The impact of the koala's iconic status manifests itself in dimensions
of the human realm such as tourism, property values and state election results,
as discussed briefly below.
The iconic status of the koala is particularly important to Australia's
tourism sector through its appeal to international visitors. Mr Al Mucci from
Dreamworld highlighted the extraordinary level of the koala's recognition
I can show a picture of a koala to a child in Kenya and he
will tell me it is a koala. If I show him a picture of a bilby he will not
know what it is. That is the iconic status of the koala...
When the koalas went from Currumbin to China [Guangzhou
province]...their visitation went up from 20,000 people a day to 40,000 people
a day because six koalas arrived. So I think that that animal internationally
has iconic status—has rock star status.
As a result of this high degree of international recognition, an Australian
Koala Foundation study estimated that 'the koala creates over 9000 jobs and
contributes between $1.1 billion and $2.5 billion for tourism per year to
The committee also heard evidence that residential property values are
influenced by their proximity to koala habitat. The Mayor of Redland City
Council, Councillor Hobson, told the committee of a Queensland University of
Technology study which found that:
A koala habitat area would add $29,600 or about five per cent
of the value of an average home. If a koala might move through an area of 10,
15 or 20 homes you can then estimate the value...just to see the koala adds an
extra $3,000 to the value of your property.
Finally, Dr Melzer informed the committee of how public responses to
threats to koala populations have influenced state elections:
Our emotional connection to koalas becomes evident when
threats to individuals or populations are publicized – and the response is
seldom purely rational (Bagust 2010). The classic example is the international
and national public outcry to proposals to cull koalas on Kangaroo Island while
there has been no widespread mention of culling of other native species on the
island. A similar public response (around proposals to build a motorway through
known koala habitat) was sufficient to influence state electoral results in
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