Koalas: A Retrospective


The Koala and a native sense of place: the urgent need for  a distinctively Australian environmental ethic

(Written in the year 2000 for a QLD Koala Conference; 17 years later, nothing has changed. See: The Guardian: Jan 16 2017, Koalas are at the centre of a perfect storm, the species is slipping away .


The unnatural history of the Koala involves the transformations made by humans to its physical and ecological setting in Australia. The unnatural history post 1788 involves the conflict between Koala ecological space and human economic space. The history involves concurrent periods of extermination, exploitation, exclusion and conservation. Koalas face numerous attacks on their ancient tenure on the land from backyard blitz disease, mad dogs, mad car disease, mad palm disease and real diseases such as Chlamydia. Not surprisingly, their response to such aggression is to become locally extinct. To reverse this unnatural history, humans must address the disease and madness. For a start, if we wish to retain a unique Australian landscape, then there must be a place in it for Koalas. In order to create or preserve such a space, we must recreate a distinctively Australian environmental ethic that restores a ‘native sense of place’. Such a native sense of place permits Koalas to co-exist with the rest of the inhabitants of eucalypt-based ecosystems, including humans. This paper will make a start in the creation of just such an ethic.

The Natural History of the Koala

 The Koala has a natural history that goes back at least 25 million years. Fossil remains of Proto-Koalas have been discovered in the Etadunna Formation in central Australia and Riversleigh in Queensland and dated at 24-37 million years of age (Oligocene Epoch) (White 1993:192). Koalas have adapted to changes in the ancient Australian environment. In particular, as the continent dried out, they co-evolved with the eucalyptus to take advantage of the energy source present in their leaves. They are specialised within the ecosystems of eastern Australia, feeding on the leaves of a narrow range of Eucalyptus species. The leaves are high in water and fibre but have a low protein content. Koalas eat between 300 – 700 grams of leaf matter a day in order to sustain themselves. However, they selectively browse to avoid the defense systems of the eucalypts (toxic chemicals such as phenolic compounds and arsenic) and have evolved livers that can detoxify otherwise harmful chemicals and an enlarged caecum where microbial fermentation of the leaves takes place (Strahan 1983:113-4).

Flannery argues that the Koala has responded to the ‘scleromorphy’ or the adaptations by Australian plants to aridity and low nutrients in the environment. Such adaptation includes relatively small rigid leaves, short internodes and hard thick leaves (Flannery 1994:84). The Koala has itself adapted to scleromorphy by restricting its own energy budget in response to its low nutrient environment. Flannery argues:

The Koala really lives on the edge, for its food source is so full of dangerous chemicals and so low in nutrients, that it has evolved to restrict its energy needs and thus needs to eat relatively little. Indeed, it is one of the greatest energy misers of all mammals. Its slow movements and low rate of reproduction are obvious results of this… (Flannery 1994:86)

Flannery (1994:86) and Archer (www), following Haight and Nelson (1987), have claimed that the Koala’s brain size was about “60% smaller than predicted for a diprotodont marsupial of equivalent body size” (in Martin and Handasyde 1999:52-53) and that this is an adaptive response to the need to save energy. However, despite being a plausible hypothesis, it seems that the reduced brain hypothesis does not hold water. The small brains were an artifact of preservation in museum specimens, rather than the product of evolution. Flannery has since retracted the thesis (Flannery 2000).

The Ecological Role of Koalas

Surprisingly, the ecological place of Koalas in the eucalypt forests of eastern Australia is not well documented, especially in the popular literature. It is difficult to speculate on their numbers; however, it seems reasonable to suggest that before the arrival of Aboriginal people, their numbers may have been higher than those between 40,000 years and 1788. This hypothesis is based on the evidence that we have on the rapid increase in Koala distribution and numbers that took place in parts of SE Australia after two natural controls on their populations, Aboriginal people and Dingoes, were removed from their habitat (Warneke 1979:109, Flannery 1994:212). It was possible for pelt hunters to kill and skin millions of Koalas in the period 1900 – 1930 as a result of their population explosion (Marshall 1966:26-33).

If we assume that, before Aboriginal occupation, millions of Koalas were spread over their range of most of eastern Australia, except the far tropical north, then they must have had a major impact on the vegetation profile of the forest. Assuming an intake of 500 grams of leaves eaten per day by a single Koala, a population of 3 million Koalas would consume 1.5 million kilograms of leaves per day and 547,000 tonnes of leaves per year. Six million Koalas would consume just over a million tonnes[1]. Such an impact would have significant ramifications for tree canopy density and the amount of light hitting the forest floor as well as fire frequency and intensity. The role of ‘mini-fauna’ (Koalas, possums) in consuming the excess energy in the biomass of the Australian environment is often overlooked. On the forest floor itself, the millions of droppings of Koalas would have constituted a significant source of forest nutrient recycling and, indeed, several species of moths are specialised feeders on “… the remains of myrtaceous leaves in possum and koala faeces” (Horak, in Australia’s Biodiversity, 1994:33).

In thermodynamic terms, the Koala had a major role in the consumption of a contested food source, eucalyptus leaves. Other mammals and insects all sought this leaf energy as part of their diet and lifecycle. Eucalyptus trees had to adapt to constant browsing and this would have affected their rates of growth and energy requirements. The wastes from such leaf eating were also a vital part of a terrestrial ecosystem. Browsing the leaves of trees has an effect on solar energy levels hitting the earth. This in turn affects the flora and soil fauna. Fire intensity may well have been related to the amount of energy available to burn in eucalyptus leaves in the canopy.

Predators that ate Koala were also part of the energy system. In the period ‘before humans’ (BH) the natural predators of Koalas would have been found within the large assemblage of carnivores that were present in Australia. Megafauna carnivores such as the giant goanna (Megalania), giant pythons and the marsupial lion (Thylacoleo carniflex) that became extinct around 40,000 years ago might have preyed upon Koalas. The Thylacine and the Tasmanian Devil lived on continental Australia until 3,000 thousand years ago (Thylacine) and 450 years (Devil) (Corbett 1995:138-141) and would have certainly had Koala on their menu.

However, the introduction of the Dingo into the Australian mainland about 3,500 years ago is thought to be related to the extinction of the native carnivores due to their inability to compete with the new predator or to their vulnerability to disease introduced by the new arrivals. The Dingo, a new and more effective predator in the ecosystems of eastern Australia, would have hunted the Koala when it was on the ground. Again, the evolutionary and ecological impacts of such a recent and major disturbance to the pre-existing ecosystem dynamics are hard to quantify. Other species known to prey on the Koala include the raptors and the Powerful Owl.

In addition to predation, the Koala probably had parasites and diseases that also kept its numbers in check. Chlamydia may have a longer epidemiological history than the last two hundred years and other diseases such as ‘lumpy jaw’ periostitis have been thought to be implicated in epidemics of lethal disease that wiped out populations in 1887-9 and 1900-3 (Troughton 1972:57). Starvation through overbrowsing would most likely have been a factor in population reduction and control in the absence of other checks such as drought and overpopulation.

In overview, the Australian environment contained Koalas for many millions of years before the arrival of humans. As bioperturbers, Koalas must have played a critical role in maintaining the ecosystem health of the whole environment. They had their place as ‘eucalypt mowers’, as nutrient providers and as prey to a variety of carnivores. Koalas have played a critical role in maintaining the upper eucalypt environment that we understand as distinctively Australian for millions of years. On the forest floor, the ground level native grass mowers such as Wombats and the Kangaroo family would have maintained the “open and park like” scenery so often observed by the first Europeans to see pristine eucalypt woodlands in eastern Australia. However, rather than some ‘gentleman’ and his staff maintaining the shape and contours of the ‘gentleman’s park’, all this work was done by an endemic army of self-organised canopy and ground-cover mowers and pruners.

Indigenous Australians and the Koolewong (Koori for Koala, Central Coast NSW)

In terms of evolution, the interaction between Koalas and humans has taken place only for a very small amount of time.  Sixty to one hundred thousand years, the period of time Aboriginal people have been present in Australia, is but a blink in the 25 million-year history of the Koala. It is probable that, in 1788, the Koalas and Indigenous Australians were still trying to work out a satisfactory co-evolutionary arrangement. There is no doubt that the arrival of a dynamic new component into the habitat of the Koala on the Australian mainland would have had a major effect on its distribution and population. The late Burnam Burnam told us that for the Kurnai people of Victoria, “Koalas were seen as good friends and givers of good advice, although they were also recognised as good eating” (Burnam Burnam 1988:310).

Koalas play an important part in the so-called ‘Dreaming’ of Aboriginal people. The people of south-eastern Australia had a story about an orphaned boy Koobor (Koo-bo-roo in some references) who had learnt to eat gum leaves to survive but was neglected by his minders who did not give him enough water. While the rest of the tribe was away, he made a tree rise up with all the water containers (tarnuk) so that when they arrived back at camp they were deprived of drinking water. Koobor himself was high in the tree with the water vessels and refused to come down. He told the others that it was their turn to experience the discomfort of thirst. Some members of the tribe climbed the tree and beat Koobor so that he fell to the ground:

As the people watched, they saw the shattered body of Koobor change into a Koala, climb to a nearby tree, and sit in the top branches, where today he does not need water to keep him alive. Koobor then made a law that, though the aborigines may kill him for food, they must not remove his skin or break bones until he is cooked. Should anyone disobey, the spirit of the dead koala will cause such a severe drought that everyone except the koalas will die of thirst. (Mountford 1973:110)

 It is thought that the meaning of the word Koala is related to the idea that the animal does not need to drink but gets its water requirements from its diet of water rich leaves. The Indigenous people of Victoria clearly developed an ethic of respect for the Koala. As Koalas live close to water but rarely drink, they are seen as ‘holders’ of the water supply. Break the taboo against the prohibition on the bones and skin, and drought would be the consequence.

The maintenance of Koalas in the environment would be useful to Aboriginal people since it was thought that they were able to give help and good advice on matters of importance. A story about the Koala and their role in advising was told by one William Thomas who was using a Kulin tracker to help him find some men:

After losing the trail, they were attracted by the noise of a koala in a tree they were passing. A parley followed between the tracker and the koala, at the conclusion of which the tracker admitted his foolishness, set off in a new direction and, within one and a half miles, came once more upon the tracks of the missing men (in Lee and Martin 1988:81).

Other Aboriginal tribes and clans had the Koala as a totem animal. Clans in the Port Stephens area had the Kula as their totem (Sokoloff 1976:103) as did tribes in Gippsland (Lee and Martin 1988:78-9). As explained by Lee and Martin:

Aborigines recognise special bonds with particular species of animals, the koala is among these. In some tribes this was expressed as a totemism involving a bond between a clan and a species. Individuals of a clan believed their lives to be intimately linked with the life of the totem animal (1988:78-9).

While not necessarily a prohibition on killing and eating, the link between the Koala and a totem may have protected the animal in question from indiscriminate killing by fire or hunting. It is clear from the information provided by Indigenous people themselves that they ate Koalas but had restrictions placed on the use of their pelts in certain regions such as Victoria. The fact that Koalas are relatively easy prey meant that humans must have had a significant effect on their population density and range. The synergy of Indigenous people and Dingoes as a hunting unit may have racheted-up the level of impact on Koalas. Parris suggested that in the lower Goulburn district of Victoria when both Aborigines and Dingoes were removed from habitat suitable for Koalas, their numbers increased and that, in addition, they began to appear in habitat previously unoccupied (Parris, in Warneke 1979:109).

Another important factor connected to Aboriginal people and Koala populations was the extent to which Aborigines used fire to control and manipulate their environment. On one hand, it is possible that the use of fire to maintain open, lightly timbered country that favoured the macropod family of marsupials and wombats would have kept habitat suitable for Koalas to a minimum. On the other, use of fire to retard invasive brush or rainforest vegetation and the maintenance of relatively open eucalyptus forest would have favoured the Koala. The evidence for the extensive use of fire and its impact on vegetation and fauna has been presented and popularised by Tim Flannery in The Future Eaters. Since its publication in 1994 a vigorous debate has occurred on the issue of Aboriginal impacts on the environment with non-indigenous writers such as Horton (2000) and indigenous writers such as Langton (1998) all taking up the issue. Hard evidence for Flannery’s hypothesis has not been forthcoming but it is possible for us all to agree on the statement that by “1788 Aboriginal societies had developed a large number of sophisticated practices for conserving animal resources” (Flannery 1994:288). Included in the suite of ‘sophisticated practices’ was the careful use of fire.

The Koala was undoubtedly protected by Dreaming stories and taboos against its unnecessary destruction by Indigenous people despite the fact that they hunted and ate them. The use of fire to destroy or create habitat that was essential to the Koala remains a contentious issue. On the balance of probabilities, given that Koala was a part of the diet of Aboriginal people in the most densely populated parts of coastal eastern Australia, use of fire to create habitat suitable for Koalas and other ‘game’ in open eucalypt woodlands seems the most likely adaptive response.

The Unnatural History of the Koala

 There is nothing ‘unnatural’ about human beings, they evolved within the context of the 3.5 billion years of evolution of life on earth. Aboriginal people arrived in a continent that had a fauna and flora that predated them by millions of years. However, it can be argued that they learnt by trial and error and astute observation that the best survival strategy was to live in harmony with the pre-existing, larger physical, climatic and ecological processes. In this sense, Indigenous people were able to unite human, landscape and ecological history into a common framework (environmental history). Learning to ‘live with nature’ is a most human of undertakings. Indigenous Australians learnt to live within the ecosystems of Australia and to protect and conserve its richness, complexity and diversity. They developed an indigenous environmental ethic over many thousands of years (Bennett 1986:137).

By contrast, an unnatural history is one where humans interact with natural systems in ways that destroy their complexity, diversity and resilience. An unnatural history leads to non-sustainability since the maladaptation (Flannery 1994:389-402) of humans to their support environment leads to ecosystem ill-health, and ultimately collapse. A key indicator of such system ill health is the extinction and endangerment of biodiversity.

Unnatural History: Part 1, The ‘Discovery’ of the Koala

The unnatural history of the Koala begins with its ‘discovery’ by European colonists who arrived in Australia in 1788. The environment around Sydney did have eucalypt forest suitable for Koalas (Kartzoff 1968:43), however, it was not until 1798 that the Koala was found by John Price near the town of Bargo 60 miles to the west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains. Price was able to report that, in addition to the Wham-batt in this area, “there is another animal which the natives call a Cullawine, which resembles the sloths in America” (in Troughton 1972:55, see also Martin and Handasyde 1999:20-24). In 1803, a report based on Ensign Barrallier’s (1802) observations was published in the Sydney Gazette and gave details on the habits and diet of the Koala which was “never before found in the Colony” (Phillips 1990:15). In the Historical Records of New South Wales there is a report of a new species discovered in the colony from Robert Brown in a letter to Joseph Banks written in September 1803. Brown relates that:

A new and remarkable species of Didelelphis has been lately brought in from southward of Botany Bay. It is called by the natives coloo or coola, and most nearly approaches to the wombat, which it differs in the number of its teeth and in several other circumstances. (Brown, in Bladen (ed) 1897:228)

In 1811, David Mann wrote, The Present Picture of New South Wales, and in this text it is mentioned that:

The Koolah, or Sloth, a singular animal of the Opossum species, having a false belly, was found by the natives, and brought into the town alive, on the 10th of August, 1803. This is a very singular animal; for when it ascends a tree, at which it is astonishingly expert, it will never quit it until it has cleared it of its leaves. It is mostly found in the mountains and deep ravines to the southward and northward of Broken Bay (Mann [1811] 1979:49).

In an interesting note, Mann adds that “… the natives instantly discover its concealment by observing the leaves of the Gum-tree eaten off, this being the tree which it usually selects” (Mann [1811] 1979:49).

The lack of Koalas around the settlement of Sydney and the limited reports about them from settlements such as those at the Hunter River[2] in NSW and in Victoria (Warneke 1978) in the first half of the nineteenth century suggest that if Koalas were present in these areas they were in low numbers and/or were hard to observe. John Gould reported in 1839-40, while he was in the Illawarra and on the western slopes of the mountain ranges bordering the Liverpool plains in NSW collecting mammals and birds, that the Koala was “to be found, and although nowhere very abundant, a pair, with sometimes the addition of a single young one, may, if diligently sought for, be procured in every forest.” (Gould [1863] 1974:36). Gould goes on to describe the Koala and its habits:

It is very recluse in its habits, and, without the aid of the natives, its presence among the thick foliage of the great Eucalypti can rarely be detected. During the daytime it is so slothful that it is very difficult to arouse and make it quit its resting-place…However difficult it maybe for the European to discover them in their shady retreats, the quick and practiced eye of the aborigine readily detects them, and they speedily fall victims to the heavy and powerful clubs which are hurled at them with the utmost precision. These children of nature eat its flesh, after cooking it in the same manner as they do that of the Opossum and the other brush animals. (Gould [1863] 1974:36)

Warneke argues that “Gould’s comments are not to be dismissed lightly” since he was assisted by local Aborigines and was a dedicated and patient observer (1978:109). However, Gould did not, as Warneke suggests, search for Koalas in south-eastern Queensland and he did not explore the Lower Hunter around the Port Stephens area. In addition, he used Aboriginal helpers only in the Upper Hunter region of NSW and beyond to the Liverpool Ranges on the western side of the Great Dividing Range (Albrecht and Albrecht 1992).

The fact that Koalas are mainly nocturnal, normally live in low densities (breeding populations can consist of 5-6 individuals), are cryptic and rest high in the canopy during the day makes observation difficult at the best of times, so the lack of reports from the first fifty years of settlement should not be all that surprising.

Unnatural History: Part 2, No Trees, No Koalas

The clearing of native vegetation and the cutting of forests for timber would have been the first major impacts that colonists had on Koalas and their habitat. It is difficult to understand early attitudes of colonists towards trees and forests, however, beliefs that forests were ‘unhealthy’ and needed to be removed and that ‘rain follows the plough’ saw the wholesale destruction of eucalypt forest and its inhabitants such as the Koala. Even in 1803 Governor King had to warn settlers against destruction of riparian vegetation along the sides of rivers such as the Hawkesbury (King, in Bladen (ed) 1897:230). On the idea that vegetation was unhealthy, the views of Howitt (1855) on the Australian bush are instructive:

The choked-up valleys, dense with scrub and rank grass and weeds, and equally rank vegetation of swamps, cannot tend to health. All these evils, the axe and the plough, and the fire of the settlers, will gradually and eventually remove; and when it is done here, I do not believe that there will be a more healthy country on the globe. (Howitt in Bolton 1981:41)

The loss of Koala habitat for agricultural land, timber, woodchips, firewood and new urban areas has a long history. It is part one of the unnatural history of the Koala and continues unabated to the present day. As has often been pointed out, the Koala’s preferred habitat is the very same nutrient rich part of coastal eastern Australia where humans wish to live. In addition, the richest soil for agricultural production was often located under the riparian vegetation. The loss of native vegetation cover, we now understand, is implicated in many parts of eastern Australia with the very opposite conclusion to that reached by Howitt. The country becomes unhealthy as it is cleared since salts and acids rise to the surface and kill all life. The loss of Koala habitat is also the loss of the ecosystem health of the land and the signs of morbidity are now unmistakable.

Unnatural History: Part 3, No Kooris More Koalas?

The forced removal of Aboriginal people from their traditional lands and the cessation of their traditional land management practices must have had a major impact on the ecology of the eastern Australian landscape. The alteration of fire frequency, the lack of hunting and the removal of the Dingo combined to create a new ecological succession, one that apparently suited the Koala. Despite the loss of habitat, Koala numbers were reported to increase in many parts of eastern Australia and this increase has been most systematically documented for the state of Victoria (Warneke 1978, Menkhorst 1995). As was noted above, it has been suggested that between about 1860 and 1890 Koala numbers and their range increased dramatically and that the increase was ‘”closely correlated with the decline and disappearance of the local Aborigines” (Serventy and Serventy 1975: 65-68, Warneke 1978:109).

Unnatural History: Part 4, Pelted to Death

 Many authors have now passed judgement on the cruelty and slaughter of wild animals for the fur trade in Australia. The Koala has a particularly poignant place in this history. From the late nineteenth century, through to the late 1920s, millions of Koalas were shot, snared, trapped and poisoned (cyanide) for their pelts (Marshall 1966, Troughton 1941, 1972, Phillips, 1990). The fur trade in Europe and the USA provided a lucrative market for the ‘natural resource’ extracted from the forests of Australia. By 1900, over-harvesting had depleted Koala numbers in South Australia to the point of extinction, while in Victoria, by the 1920s, their numbers plummeted to an estimate of 500-1000 individual animals (Warneke 1979:110). In Queensland in 1927 an open season was declared on the hunting of possums and Koalas. As related by Marshall, the Queensland Government promoted:

An open season for opossums and native bears … during the month of August, 1927. During that period 1,014,632 opossums and 584,738 bears were secured. The total value of the skins obtained reached a sum of £378,023 … This sum was credited to a trust fund established under the Acts for the protection and propagation of our native fauna (sic!). (Marshall 1966:30, his emphasis)

By 1930 legislation protected Koalas from such slaughter in most parts of Australia. However, the translocation of populations of Koalas to off-shore islands saved them from extinction in Victoria. This too would have reverberations through Koala history in the C20 with now well-documented cases of over-browsing on islands and subsequent starvation as food supplies collapsed. The spread of Chlamydia from these stressed and disease prone island populations back on to the mainland for re-population might have been the cause of the epidemic of this disease that has progressed though the mainland Koalas of eastern Australia in the last 50 years (see Menkhorst 1995:88).

Unnatural History: Part 5, Cars and K Marts Vs Koalas

 As Australian became more urbanised in the post second world war period, the amount of land devoted to roads and housing increased. Rather than following European models of cities with high population density and extensive public transport systems, Australian cities followed the American model of low density car dependant cities with poorly developed public transport systems (Newman and Kenworthy 1999). Cities such as Brisbane grow to take up huge amounts of available space. Greater Brisbane has the dubious distinction as one of the top five cities in the world for the extent of its surface area. In all parts of south-eastern Australia, the clash between prime Koala habitat and urbanisation was one that would be won by houses and roads. Private property rights and planning around the use of the private car ensured that Koala country would be replaced by an incompatible and, for Koalas, alien urban environment. In places like Port Stephens in NSW, the incompatibility of urban pressures (habitat destruction, cars, dogs) will see in the foreseeable future the local extinction of the Koala in one of its former strongholds in the state (Knott et al 1998). This will occur despite Koala Management Plans and legislation drafted to protect the Koala and its habitat.

Unnatural History: Part 6, Mad Palm Disease

 It was not enough that Australians made Koalas coexist with  known killers such as cars and domestic dogs, they also began to replace the vestiges of Australian vegetation with exotic plants. Mad lawn disease is well known in Australia and involves investing huge amounts of water, technology, chemicals, fossil fuels and fertiliser to keep it going.  A new variant is “mad palm disease” where gum trees fall victim to exotic palms that are useless for almost all native animals, but particularly the Koala. Extreme forms of “mad palm disease” can be found in former Koala habitat. A new variation on this occurs where a post-modern pastiche of pools, paving, natives and exotics are blended with pets of all types into the sanctity of the urban backyard. The only Koalas welcome in such an environment are plaster copies that can be hung on tree trunks. Koalas become well known on t-shirts and tea towels but disappear from the environment where once they lived.

Unnatural History: Part 7, Koalas, Cameras and Cuddles

 The final phase of this history is to acknowledge that Koalas cannot exist in urban areas as described above and that the only hope for people who “love” Koalas is to put them in mini-zoos. In NSW such mini-zoos allow no direct human contact with the animals on display. However, in Queensland, under the pressure of the demands of Japanese and other tourists, Koalas are permitted to be ‘cuddled’. In this final phase of their unnatural evolution, Koalas are managed by humans in a captive environment for their entire lifecycle to be part of the commercialisation of our native wildlife.

Reversing the Unnatural History and the Creation of Koala Ethics

 We have seen that the creation of the unnatural history involves a denial of the reality of the Australian environment. Flannery is correct in highlighting the need for our culture to accommodate our erratic climate and low nutrient environment and the Koala is a good symbol of how to live within the ecological and physical realities of this land. Its destruction, by hunting and exclusion, has resulted in an impoverished Australian ecosystem, one that lacks diversity and complexity and is more open to catastrophic change and failure.

Aboriginal Australians developed ways of systematically protecting the diversity present in the environment. Koalas lived in the relatively rich country along the riparian vegetation of watercourses. The connection between Koalas and drought in Aboriginal Dreaming suggests that Koalas would have benefited from the conservation of ‘increase sites’ or places where animals repopulate and expand their territories after drought. Newsome, following Strehlow, has argued that totemic places coincide with the richest habitat for particular species and that conservation of those sites was embedded in Aboriginal land management practice (Newsome 1980). In addition, prohibition on the eating of the flesh of the Koala at certain times by those who held the Koala as their totem would have had the effect of maintaining population numbers. As Bennett argues:

In a land with relatively few individuals of some species, prohibiting a segment of the human population from eating that species eases the pressure of human predation and promotes the continued existence of that species. (Bennett 1986:137)

 Aboriginal people certainly had a very strong ‘sense of place’, one that gave them their identity and strength. Their knowledge of the flora and fauna and natural rhythms of their ‘country’ made them acutely aware of their relationship to the bioregional ecosystems that sustained them.

However, based on the evidence presented above, Koalas might not have received sufficient protection from the assemblage of conservation strategies embedded in Aboriginal culture. The suggestions of low numbers and density of Koalas in many parts of SE Australia around 1788 might be an indication that hunting pressures had outstripped the effectiveness of cultural taboos and land management practices. More likely, the arrival of the Dingo may well have upset an equilibrium between Kooris and Koalas that had taken many thousands of years to achieve. Pressure from the Dingo may well have been pushing the Koala, like the Thylacine and the Devil, towards continental extinction. Given that Aboriginal culture was not static, an adaptive response to a decline in Koolewong numbers may well have been forthcoming. However, the arrival of European colonisers in 1788 put a halt to the further development of traditional Indigenous environmental ethics.

Building a New Koala Ethic

 A distinctively Australian sense of place requires firstly a detailed knowledge of place and secondly, a response to that knowledge in the form of an ethic or guide for action. Ethics is about knowledge and description of what is ‘good’ and applied ethics is about the realisation of that good which has been described. In Australia, the high levels of endemism of flora and fauna mean that the ‘good’ for Australia will be quite different from that for other parts of the world. At present the dominant guide for action is an ethic based on perpetual consumption and growth in capital. Such a system guarantees that wild Koalas will become increasingly locally extinct as their habitat disappears. As this process unfolds, a distinctively Australian environment is replaced by an artifact that could be found anywhere on the planet. The only place for Koalas is in Koala Parks where they are available for the ‘ecotourists’.

Such an outcome might suit a few post-modernists and developers, however, it is not likely to be sustainable in the medium to long-term. Loss of native vegetation is now implicated in major continental environmental problems such as soil erosion, rising salinity and acid soils. Loss of vegetation is also implicated in planetary issues such as the enhanced greenhouse effect and global climate change (warming). Australia (and Queensland in particular) is in the top four world leaders for rates of land clearing. While it may be possible to ‘correct’ these problems without the use of native re-vegetation, the lesson from evolution is that major human induced change from that which has evolved over millions of years is likely to be detrimental to the health of that system. With Koalas and their habitat, the question must be asked, how can we improve on a co-evolutionary product that has 25 million years of refinement behind it? Koalas are successful evolutionary strategies within the context of the ecological limitations of the Australian environment and their success has been for the long-haul. Failure to understand the role and importance of Koalas to the ecosystem health of eastern Australia is symptomatic of the failure to adequately protect our biodiversity up to the present (see Albrecht 1998).

To understand the ‘ecosystem being’ (Albrecht 1999a) of a species is to understand its place in the full ecosystem complexity within which it exists. It is not enough to understand basic biology, its behavior, its reproduction and its diseases, we must understand the species’ full contribution to the complexity and diversity of a community of living things. Aboriginal people used their basic senses to learn something of species’ interactions, however, with the use of new technologies, science is able to give us richer and deeper insight into how things are really interconnected. The relationship between fungi and the existence of many types of ground orchids in Australia is a good example of how research in the microscopic world throws insight onto the world not accessible to the unaided senses.

Another excellent example of ecosystem-based research that can transform the way we appreciate the environment is that of Garkaklis in Western Australia. He discovered that there is a relationship between underground eatable fungi, the Woylie or rat kangaroo, its prodigious digging habits in search of the fungi, the rate of water absorption of soils and the overall health of the Dryandra forest where all this activity takes place (in Albrecht 1999b). Creative bioturbation by the Woylie helps create the Dryandra ecosystem of which it is an integral part. Ecosystem health is the outcome of Woylies doing what comes naturally. Take them out of the system and the soil becomes hard and water-resistant and the rainwater runs off the surface. Trees then do not get their required water and suffer stress and the whole system begins to collapse under the impacts of erosion and lack of water.

This richer understanding of the complexity in ecosystems can be put to work in developing a distinctively Australian environmental ethic. Understanding the role of Koala bioturbation, for example, makes one appreciate the Koala as more than a cute animal, it is a part of what makes an Australian eucalypt forest a healthy ecosystem.

In the Australian environment, perhaps more than many others, we need to appreciate the dynamism that both features creative disturbance to ecosystems and its ongoing maintenance. Our own environmental ethic will need to emphasise both disturbance and stability as crucial to the creation and maintenance of our unique (high level of endemism) ecosystems. In the past, we have relied on the ideas of others from the northern hemisphere to inspire environmental ethics. Derived from the context of more stable climates and richer physical environments, such Euro- or American-centric environmental ethics tended to stress stability and harmony in the total environment. The great American environmental ethicist, Aldo Leopold, for example, in his A Sand County Almanac (1949) wrote that:

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise. (Leopold 1989:224-225).

Today we might question Leopold on the issue of stability and how it is achieved, however, it is not difficult to apply his ‘Land Ethic’ to the Australian continent.

While using Leopold as a source for environmental ethics, we must not overlook the evolution of an indigenous land ethic in Australia. In addition to the ethics developed by Indigenous Australians, a number of writers within post-Cook Australia have encouraged just such an ethic. John Gould, writing about the future of the Great Red Kangaroo in 1863, was impelled to encourage Australians to render greater protection to all of its “conspicuous productions”. He argued then that:

The larger and more conspicuous productions of an island are often, as a natural consequence, the first that become extirpated; and this result takes place more speedily where no protection is afforded to them. Short-sighted indeed are the Anglo-Australians, or they would long ere this have made laws for the preservation of their highly singular, and in many instances noble, indigenous animals; and doubly short-sighted are they for wishing to introduce into Australia the productions of other climes, whose forms and nature are not adapted to that country. Let me urge them to bestir themselves, ere it be too late, to establish laws for the preservation of the large Kangaroos, the Emue, and other conspicuous indigenous animals: without some such protection, the remnant that is left will soon disappear, to be followed by unavailing regret for the apathy with which they had been previously regarded.  (Gould [1863] 1973:16)

While John Gould did not anticipate that to some extent the Red Kangaroo would be favoured by the presence of permanent water associated with pastoralism in semi-arid Australia, his comments certainly ring true for the Koala. He specifically commented of the Koala that “this species is certain to become gradually more scarce, and to be ultimately extirpated” (Gould [1863] 1974:34). His observations that indigenous animals are ‘adapted’ to this continent and that this is a source of value, which is important to an Australian identity, have been ignored for 150 years.

In 1946, three years before the publication of the now famous Sand County Almanac, an Australian woman wrote a book called Soil and Civilization. Elyne Mitchell remains better known for her fiction books on horses (the Silver Brumby series), but her book is an important early contribution to the evolution of a distinctively Australian environment ethic. In Soil and Civilization, Mitchell applies an understanding of ecological thinking to the then state of the environment. She writes:

The natural laws of the undiscovered Australia were incomprehensible to minds molded in Western Europe. Yet that this land may survive as living earth we must learn to understand the balance that existed when Australia contained only the nomadic aborigines and the slow-breeding marsupials, and condition our relationship with the land by what we learn. If we build our civilization direct from the essential Australia, we must allow its essence to influence our thought and our lives – and become interpreters of this continent… (Mitchell 1946:138)

Mitchell encouraged Australians to have a “land sense” (1946:33) and to create a “permanent culture” (1946:139) long before contemporary concepts of sustainability and permaculture came into academic and environmentalist discourses. She encouraged Australians to understand the “living relationships” between all of the elements of dynamic landscapes such as water catchments and between the city and its rural hinterland long before the ‘bioregional’ movement gained momentum in the late 20th century.

The implications that follow from a native Australian, endemic or indigenous sense of place, will provide insight into Koalas and their role in the creation and maintenance of essential Australia. A distinctively Australian environmental ethic, founded on a native sense of place, can provide guidance on how we can live with Koalas and the rest of our flora and fauna into the future.

Such an ethic involves:

  1. Respect for this continent; it is older than most other places on earth
  2. Discovery of the organic, living relationships between the elements that support life – water, soil, climate, biodiversity and the sun
  3. An appreciation of the adaptations made by our flora and fauna to live within the ecological and physical realities of this land
  4. A deeper understanding of the role of disturbance (bioturbation, fire) in the creation and maintenance of complexity and diversity in ecosystems
  5. An understanding of the role of endemic flora and fauna in creating the uniqueness of the Australian landscape
  6. A sense that we all united by living within water catchments and bioregions that have seasons and rhythms not dictated by the calendar
  7. Repair and restoration of native Australian landscapes with particular attention to ‘place-sensitive repair’
  8. Reconciliation with the Indigenous people of Australia and their culture
  9. Development of a strong sense that the unique Australian landscape is the common heritage of all Australians
  10. Design of the urban/industrial landscape to fit harmoniously within its bioregion

The systematic application of such an ethic in all aspects of Australian culture and public policy would benefit Koalas in the following ways:

  • Protection of remaining Koala habitat from unsympathetic development
  • Encouragement of a love of the beauty and integrity of the Australian environment through the Koala and Koala culture
  • Co-existence with Koalas and other native animals as fellow members of the biotic community (but not as pets!)
  • Design of urban living so as to minimise unnatural hazards to Koalas (climbable fences, safe pools)
  • The creation of safe corridors of native urban vegetation that connect to large reserves (not islands) (community buy-back of Koala space)
  • The conscious creation of an Australian urban landscape with habitat for Australian animals such as the Koala (fight mad palm disease)
  • Funding and resourcing a reserve system with appropriate numbers of trained National Parks and Wildlife Staff (particularly Indigenous staff)
  • Funding research into the ecosystem requirements of Koalas and their place in the total environment (including the issue of population control)

None of the above will occur if we continue to move in the direction of unsustainable development of the remaining natural resources of Australia. The problem of over-abundance of Koalas in areas where natural predators are not present translates into a problem of ongoing loss of habitat where Koalas and all of the other inhabitants (including natural predators) of open eucalypt forests can live. It is humans that are creating the ‘pressure-cooker’ islands of habitat that cause the wild fluctuations in Koala populations and it is humans that must take responsibility for the reversal of such a situation.

However, to reverse 200 hundred years of unnatural evolution will not be an easy task. Yet if we do not try, the cry of Koolewong or “there is a Koala’ will never be heard again in the Australian bush. The presence of healthy, wild Koalas will always remind us that “we are going in the right direction” and without them we just might permanently lose our way. Koala Dreaming will be an integral part of our future reconciliation with this land and its Indigenous people. Both the Koala and the Aborigine passed the test of sustainability for the long-term. The maladapted culture of a perpetually ‘colonial’ Australia has yet to understand the true meaning of sustainability.


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[1] In 1995 Australia exported about 6 million ‘green tonnes’ of woodchips from hardwood forests.

[2] See Knott, et al (1998) for a detailed account of Koalas in the Lower Hunter 1801-1998.