Phillip Island koalas’ future bleak
Feb 14 2021
Phillip Island Nature Parks has dismissed calls to include koalas in its proposed threatened species plan, despite the much-loved marsupial under serious threat in the wild.
There are less than 20 koalas believed to live in the wild on Phillip Island, with another koala count planned for this year (2021).
Nature Parks has a centre dedicated to conserving the species at Five Ways, which has a declining populated currently totalling 21 koalas.
Nature Parks is currently focused on the creation of an “Island Ark” through its Threatened Species Plan: the reintroduction of endangered animals and plants, including the southern bettong, growling grass frog and long-nosed potoroo.
As part of the plan, about 70 eastern barred bandicoots were released onto the Summerland Peninsula in 2017, while PINP’s current draft Wildlife Plan suggests introducing predator quolls and owls.
Despite this, PINP CEO Catherine Basterfield has ruled out stepping up efforts to increase wild or captive koala numbers, saying they were an introduced species to Phillip Island.
“Koala numbers on Phillip Island are dwindling through a combination of disease, habitat loss and urbanisation,” Ms Basterfield said.
“There are very limited opportunities for koalas to be released on Phillip Island as we do not have the range of tree species to support a viable population, and we also have a diseased (chlamydia positive) wild population that would compromise koalas being relocated.
“This is why the Nature Parks has not identified koalas in the Threatened Species Plan as an appropriate species to re-establish in the wild on Phillip Island.”
Ms Basterfield said koalas in Australia broadly speaking were under threat “however Victorian koala populations are not threatened with extinction”.
“There was damage from recent bushfires in Victoria but there is no evidence that the Victorian populations are under threat,” she said, adding Nature Parks nursed 14 bushfire affected koalas.
However, Phillip Island’s peak koala conservation group Friends of the Koalas (FoK) disputed this, arguing Victorian koalas were under threat and Nature Parks was in a position to help the species.
“I totally agree that koalas should be included in PINP’s endangered ark,” said FoK president Patsy Hunt.
“Some of the species Nature Parks are considering introducing or have introduced – such as the eastern barred bandicoots – were possibly not here either. Koalas are certainly under threat in large parts of Australia and are listed as endangered.”
Ms Hunt said the Federal Government had just announced $18 million for a national audit of koala populations, to count every koala in Australia.
“This is because scientists say there is a serious lack of data about where populations actually are and that includes Victoria. Apart from a few isolated and genetically compromised populations, numbers of healthy koalas in Victoria are probably much lower than thought and they probably are threatened.
“That is why I believe the PINP could do more for the koala as it has the capacity to do so and the koala is certainly in trouble. Thousands of koalas were killed in the bushfires and much habitat was lost. There is growing concern about their future with some populations facing extinction.”
Ms Hunt said the Koala Conservation Centre was created “for the very purpose of preserving the koala”.
“In the early years it did conduct research and education and had a successful breeding program but this is not occurring much at the moment.
“While it might not be possible to re-establish a large population on the island, PINP needs to do something about the koala numbers at the Koala centre as their breeding rate is very low and many koalas there are old.
“The centre could support a better breeding program for the future of the koala statewide, as well as undertaking research and education. It was after all established to conserve the species.”
Ms Hunt acknowledged there were limited opportunities to release koalas on Phillip Island, but said areas such as Oswin Roberts Reserve and Ventnor Reserve could support more numbers.
“The land was set aside specifically for koalas and we do have a range of tree species to support them. We have certainly planted lots. Yes they have chlamydia but so do other koala populations.”
She said PINP could possibly breed the threatened Strzelecki koala – whose numbers are now believed to be below 1500 – and release them into available habitat in Gippsland. French Island koalas come from a small genetic base and were becoming inbred, “which isn’t good for the future of the species”.
“That is why the preservation of the Strzelecki koala is so important genetically for the future of koalas,” Ms Hunt said.
She added PINP dropped the word Conservation from the Koala Conservation Centre’s title last year and renamed it Koala Reserve.
“We strongly protested and the board then agreed to call it Koala Conservation Reserve.”
Rate of extinction
Since Phillip Island was declared fox-free in August 2017, the focus has shifted to threatened species.
Beyond the Horizon: A 30-year Conservation Plan, which was released by PINP in 2018, suggests the island should become a haven for endangered and threatened Victorian species.
“Australia is experiencing the highest rate of species extinctions of any landmass … This provides a significant opportunity for Phillip Island to play a key role in preserving the biodiversity of Victoria,” the plan states.
The last island-wide koala count was in November 2016, when less than 20 koalas in the wild were counted.
A planned count in 2020 has been rescheduled to 2021, due to Covid.