The deaths of dozens of koalas during logging operations at a private property in Victoria’s south-west are being investigated.
CAUTION: Distressing images
The owner of a private farm near Portland in Victoria - where at least 40 koalas have died and 80 others have been found injured - has defended his management of the property, as Victoria’s state government launches an investigation into the incident.
Photographs of the maimed koalas sparked public outrage around the world after being shared on social media.
But the landowner - who said he is horrified by what has occurred - said that the number of deaths has been inflated online.
He also said that overpopulation of koalas had resulted in the deaths.
“I did not seek to deliberately doze koalas to death. I am not a killer, I am a farmer, we care too,” he said.
‘It is not the first time’
Conservation group Friends of Earth (FOE) posted the koala photos online in the hope it would lead to stricter regulations.
The organisation's land-use researcher Anthony Amis said: “It’s disturbing because it is not the first time it has happened in the south-west”.
“In 2013, similar issues were reported by the press and in 2014, 2015 we were getting reports in from animal carers down there that similar instances were happening - this particular incident seems to be the worst of the lot,” he said.
“In south-west Victoria, in the last 20 years there were about 150-200,000 hectares of blue gum plantation planted - koalas love blue gums - so as this industry has moved into the area, koalas have moved into these plantations, then the plantations are logged after 15 years … that’s the disaster.”
‘It’s a slap on the wrist’
The state government is investigating whether the incident breaches the Wildlife Act 1975 - which protects koalas from being killed, harassed or disturbed and can attract a fine of $8,000 and an additional fine of more than $800 per animal.
Those convicted can also face six months imprisonment and a lawyer at Environmental Justice Australia, Bruce Lindsay, told SBS News that the government could possibly investigate two other laws as well; one being “the prevention of cruelty to animals act”.
“The third area of law is actually the regulation of forestry itself; there is a code of practice which includes the management of plantations and also the protection of biodiversity at plantations,” he said.
But Mr Amis said the penalties do not go far enough and are the equivalent of a “slap on the wrist”, doing little to deter individuals or logging companies from repeat offending.
“Potentially, even if this guy goes through the court process and is found guilty, could be up to a maybe a $10-20,000 fine max,” he said.
“The wildlife isn’t respected because the fines aren’t there for people that do the wrong thing.”
‘There is a difference between logging and land clearing’
Logging company South West Fibre, which worked on the property until November last year, has condemned the incident and adviser Robert Hadler said the company is in no way connected to the koalas' deaths or injuries as the land was returned to the property owner by Christmas.
“We have a koala management plan which includes individual spotters to identify koalas in trees - the trees are then quarantined from harvesting and all koalas are identified, mapped and protected during the harvesting process,” he said.
The company harvested around 28 hectares of the 55-hectare property, leaving 12,000 trees behind, an amount Mr Hadler said left sufficient habitat for the 72 koalas they counted on the property.
“There is a difference between logging and land clearing. In the case of South West Fibre the selecting harvesting or logging that occurred was only a partial amount of trees on the property,” he said.
“The subsequent land clearing that appears to have been undertaken was total land clearing where all the trees and remnant vegetation on the property were cleared."
‘We’ve got to look long term’
Mr Amis wants the government to take a long term approach to koala protection which goes beyond enforcing stricter regulations for logging companies, but considers where koalas can be relocated to if their habitats are being cleared, “You can’t just take a koala out of its environment and put it somewhere else 50km away and expect everything is going to be fine,” he said.
“We call on Dan Andrews to get a koala plan happening that has the long term interests of the animal at heart.”
The Victorian government is investigating the incident and the state’s Chief Conservation Regulator Kate Gavens said initial assessment suggests the logging of blue gums is to blame.
“There are a diverse range of issues here, one of them is starvation and ... potentially, injuries from the harvesting of timber on the site.”
While Victoria’s Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio has condemned the act as “abysmal” and pledged to hold those responsible to account, "It is a crime, it is cruel and it should not be allowed to be gotten away with."