While it might initially look like a healthy forest, once you look closer it's clear there's a problem. Cast your eye along the canopy and you'll see dead white manna gum branches stretching through the healthy leaves. They were stripped bare by koalas who favour the species over other eucalypts.
The carnage occurred on a property near Victoria's famed Great Ocean Road, and the biodiversity loss has left its owner "seriously concerned".
Peter Myroniuk's wife no longer ventures out into the Cape Otway forest they purchased together over 20 years ago. “She gets too upset and anxious about it,” he said.
Myroniuk, a leading conservation zoologist, had until recently felt the same, but after he mustered the courage to walk down into the forest, he discovered resident koalas are now killing younger trees that are trying to establish themselves, threatening the habitat's future. Hoping to protect some of these new trees, he’s fashioned protective bands around them to block hungry koalas.
“The trees don’t only support koalas, birds and other mammals need them too. So what we’re seeing is a huge environmental loss” he said.
While the damage frustrates him, it's not the animals themselves who he blames. The problem, he believes is one of human making.
Authorities argue koala density declining
Tourists flock to Cape Otway's forests to see koalas in the wild, but Myroniuk has concerns about the management of the species. He believes the "failings" of successive governments have negatively impacted their welfare and the forests they live in. Something he says is clear from his images.
After Yahoo posed questions about Myroniuk’s denuded trees and koala management to Victoria’s Department of Environment (DEECA), it issued a statement.
"Over-abundance of koalas is a difficult, long-term issue brought about by their love of Manna Gums, their reluctance to change food source, favourable climatic conditions and an absence of predators,” it said.
"Our ongoing koala management programs have led to a steady decline in koala density across Cape Otway and their overall health and condition has improved."
Koalas in southwest Victoria routinely euthanised
As indicated by DEECA’s statement, the problem is not just confined to Myroniuk’s property, with the issue extending beyond the hundreds of hectares affected in the Otways.
Many of the issues facing koalas are manmade, with some caused by pressure from development. Travelling further west towards the South Australia border there is another major concern — large populations of koalas thrive in timber plantations but are regularly harvested and this leaves the animals homeless.
When they wander into neighbouring properties, national parks or state forests they put pressure on existing populations and trees become denuded. Authorities then survey the forests and euthanise animals whose welfare is assessed as compromised.
In December, of the 93 animals examined at the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Budj Bim site, 28 were found to have health issues and be unviable. Of the 58 females assessed, 34 received fertility control.
Government accused of being frightened to spend on environment
While the government has committed over $3.3 million over two years to tackle problems with overabundance which are addressed in the state’s 10-year plan, Myroniuk argues serious money must be invested to tackle issues facing this iconic marsupial.
He wants to see the government “do something big” and employ teams of people to plant more manna gums in existing forests, and connect habitats with tree corridors to stop animals becoming landlocked in forests where they over-browse.
“The government’s not afraid to put tunnels in the ground for rail and freeways. When it comes to huge infrastructure projects we’ll spend big,” he said. “But we seem to be afraid to spend money on the environment.”
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