Reader advice – Some of the following information may be confronting
By Isobel Roe
Koalas were almost driven to extinction when the Queensland Government declared open season on the marsupials 90 years ago this month.
The licensed killing of koalas for their skins, or pelts, started a couple of decades earlier.
German biologist Richard Semon documented the practice during a visit to Australia in 1899.
“My shot wounded the creature — it hung for some time suspended by its paws trying in vain to draw up its hind paws and swing itself onto the branch,” Mr Semon said in 1899.
“I aimed once more and struck its head.
“Still it clung to the tree for a while with its right forepaw, then fell down heavily and died a few minutes later.
“It was a strong, fully developed female, carrying a half-grown young one on its back.
“The poor little thing clung to its dead mother with its sharp paws, and would not be torn away.
“I thought of taking it into my camp and rearing it, but the next morning it had left its mother’s cold body and disappeared.”
The practice was banned in the early 1900s in New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria.
But in Queensland it continued until 1927 when the Australian icon was almost driven to extinction following a Queensland Government-endorsed “open season”.
The mass killings were etched in history as Black August.
Koala hunters killed 600,000 koalas for pelts
In the weeks leading up to August 1927, the Queensland Government collected licence fees from 10,000 hopeful koala hunters to boost rural employment and in response to reports of uncontrollable koala populations.
The furs were popular in the coat, glove and hat industries in the United States.
Restrictions were lifted and the acting Queensland premier of the time, William Forgan Smith, declared an “open season” on August 1, 1927.
The impact of the slaughter:
- 600,000 koala pelts were collected in Black August alone
- The death toll may have been as high as 800,000 koalas
- The pelts were sold at an average price of 56 shillings and 9 pence per dozen
- 38 Queensland companies were involved in the fur trade
- The backlash that followed helped topple the Labor government in elections in May 1929
- The current koala population represents 1 per cent of the population shot before the fur trade
Source: Australian National University
The killing was finally banned after a massive public backlash in what was thought to be Australia’s first large movement of citizens for a conservation issue.
Australian Koala Foundation spokeswoman Deborah Tabart has been fighting for a Koala Protection Act for almost 30 years.
She said Black August was an unbelievable legacy.
“They used to skin them alive and put them back up the tree with no fur,” Ms Tabart said.
“I believe that all of the problems today are as a result of the shootings from that time.
“We have got a shocking history and I do not believe there is one government in this country that is interested in protecting them.”
Koalas: Where are they now?
Despite the 1927 culling, the koala was only listed as vulnerable to extinction across the whole of Queensland in 2012.
Earlier this year, the Queensland Government’s Koala Expert Panel found the population decline showed no sign of stopping.
“This decline is related to ongoing habitat loss in south-east Queensland resulting from increasing urbanisation, other threats such as dog attacks and road mortality associated with development, and disease,” the panel wrote in its interim report.
Ms Tabart said the major threat to koalas today was habitat loss.
“We’ve turned back our land clearing laws, the developers can get what they want,” she said.
Queensland still behind on conservation
Queensland Environment Minister Steven Miles said it was “disturbing” to think about a government minister issuing an open season on one of Australia’s most famous animals.
“It just gives you some sense of how many koalas must have been here when the Europeans settled, for them to hunt maybe 8 million koalas nationwide and maybe 2 million here in Queensland,” he said.
Mr Miles admitted the state was still way behind others in terms of conservation.
At the same time, it was estimated another 200 were being taken to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital each year.
Many injured koalas had to be euthanased.
“It’s true we’ve seen a continued decline since then while in some other states when hunting stopped the population recovered,” Mr Miles said.
“In fact there are some places in South Australia and Victoria where populations are excessive and those governments there have a very different management challenge.”
Mr Miles said he expected to be handed a report from the Koala Expert Panel in the next few weeks, which would dictate how the government could change its town planning rules in south-east Queensland to manage rapid population declines.
“We can’t make a choice here between more houses for people to live in and our koala populations,” he said.
“We need to find a way to do both and that’s what I’m hoping the expert panel will provide us some guidance on.”
Click on the following for a good news story and congratulations to the La Trobe university students involved.