News: virus threatens to wipe out Kangaroo Island koalas. Environmentally excellent!

Posted on 29/09/2011


The Advertiser front page today:

Retrovirus threatens Kangaroo Island koalas

The survival of Kangaroo Island’s koalas in is grave danger because of an AIDS-like virus affecting 40% of the population.
Experts say the disease has the potential to impact koalas in a similar way to how mouth cancer is wiping out Tasmanian devils.
The Environment Department yesterday revealed koala numbers on the island had dropped by 14,000 over the past decade. (Page 3: Full report)

Clearly they’re aiming for a “Oh, no!” reaction. My reaction was “Good!”.

Why? Nowhere in the article does it mention the most important fact that the koalas on Kangaroo Is. are an introduced species – a pest – feral. They are the rabbits of Kangaroo Island; in 2001 there were 27,000 koalas stripping the island of its vegetation that supports other native species.

Without mentioning that they’re feral, the article says: “Kangaroo Island’s koala population has previously been robust and bred prolifically, prompting concerns they were demolishing the native habitat with their voracious appetites. The State Government introduced a sterilisation program to contain them in 1997.

If you don’t tell people the basic piece of context that they’re feral, then you’re misleadingly getting them worried about it (but it wouldn’t newsworthy for the front page if written with perspective), and I’m just waiting for people to start writing in to the paper criticising the government for sterilising them.

It was the sensational news coverage lacking context that was really annoying the first time around when there was a backlash against koala culling. The backlash lead to us having a far less effective, decades slower and far more expensive sterilisation program (I can’t find overall costs since 1997, but in 2008-09 alone it cost $500 000).

Culling is what we do with any other non-native species like rabbits, goats or camels that are destroying the native environment. New Zealand has to cull destructive introduced Australian brush tail possums. We’re even happy when we create a virus to kill rabbits by haemorrhaging to death.

But no, they’re koalas and they’re cute and a national icon so the cute-and-fuzzy-brigade and the totally-unscientific-emotive-pseudoenvironmental-brigade started jumping up and down and crying murder. And if the Australian locals can’t stop being hypocritical by thinking that feral species that are destroying the environment should be culled except koalas, then we can’t expect the tourists who threatened to boycottKI if there was a cull to be any more intelligent and rational.

baby koala adelaide gum tree garden

Koalas in my front garden. One afternoon walking down from Mt Lofty we gave up counting the koalas in the trees along the path when we reached 30. And some of them were in pairs trying to produce more koalas! We're 1,300 to 2,000 km away from the Eastern states where the koala crusaders might be justifiably worried about declining numbers. They presumably can't grasp environmental concepts like locally indigenous species.


• The article implies that it is “feared” that koalas on KI could be wiped out. It of course leaves the less newsworthy reality to the very last line on page 3 that few people will read: “There is no evidence to suggest that the koala population on Kangaroo Island will become extinct from the retrovirus.” Pity, because it would save us the cost of sterilising and relocating them.

• It is not an “AIDS-like virus“. AIDS is not a virus – AIDS is a syndrome that people infected with the virus HIV develop. The journo/editor probably read a statement like this: “an AIDS-like syndrome referred to as the koala retrovirus (KoRV)” and  thought that changing the word syndrome to virus would read better, and there was no one who knew about science to tell them otherwise. If you actually want to know about the koala retrovirus it’s rather fascinating – we have old retroviruses littered through our genome, but they’re generally inactive, and this virus shows how they might have got there. The Nature paper is behind a paywall but you can read about it in this Catalyst episode or this virology blog.

There are significant disease threats to Australia’s koala population on the mainland, especially in the Eastern states, but this article totally misses the point by only talking about the threat to the koalas on Kangaroo Island and never mentioning that they don’t belong on KI.

Update 30/9: I’ve just seen the KI koala story on the ABC TV website and it’s somewhat better than The Advertiser article, because it does eventually mention that koalas are aren’t native to KI. But that’s after they’ve said that our state government is resisting a push to make koalas nationally protected and the requisite he-says-she-says soundbite from a Australian Koala Foundation representative: “Surely for an icon of this species you wouldn’t allow one small isolate to get in the way and cloud the conservation debate for the protection of this amazing animal.”

Yep, we’re not going to allow emotive pseudoenvironemtal claptrap from one small isolate to cloud the conversation debate and get in the way of protecting the amazing animals on Kangaroo Is from being eaten out of house and home by feral koalas.

(Although to be fair to the Australian Koala Foundation I’ve found this interview with their CEO who later in the interview was emphasising the need to save habitat and whole ecosystems, not just koalas. As I said in my post about orangutans and deforestation – the biggest benefit from cute icon species is when they can be used save the whole ecosystem, such as by reducing deforestation. That’s not the case for feral koalas on KI though.)

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