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Koalas to burn: Winter and wildlife in Victoria

Life on land

“The conservation status of the Koala in Victoria is considered to be secure. Koalas are considered overabundant in some areas of Victoria and impact on native flora through over-browsing” DELWP

Peter Hylands, Andrea Hylands

September 1, 2022

Convoys of duck shooters on the roads, burning Koalas and the killing of Kangaroos, to name but a few. Here, silly numbers and silly attitudes drive extreme cruelty and the journey to extinction.

Koala population estimates in Victoria

In October 2020 the Victorian Government's Department of Environment (DELWP) produced an estimate of the State’s Koala population, this following the catastrophic fires of the 2019 -2020 summer, saying that the state-wide Koala population might be larger than previously thought, at around 413,000 individuals in native forest and woodland. Of that, the Koala population in eucalypt plantations across the State was estimated to be around 47,000 individuals.

Koala in the Otways

Secretive killing of Koalas

In Victoria, despite an elaborate system that allows the killing of wildlife (ATCW) Koalas in Victoria are killed ‘off the books’ to hide the activity from the general public. For example this response from DELWP to a series of questions I put to them.

“The euthanasia of Koalas in 2013/2014 was undertaken by veterinarians on welfare grounds, as the Koalas were suffering from starvation and disease. In that period 686 Koalas were killed using lethal injections. Veterinarians are exempt from the requirement to obtain an authorisation under the Wildlife Act if they are euthanising wildlife on welfare grounds”.

Koala, Victora

A government that blocks wildlife rescues

With these attitudes in mind it is not surprising that the same Victorian Government department during the bushfires of 2018 -2019 and 2019-2020 tried to prohibit the rescue of the ‘overabundant’ young Koalas from fire-grounds on public lands, that is, from state and national parks and other public lands. While they later claimed, after publishing the plan, this was not their intention (due to international outrage), however they were remarkably successful at repressing the attempted rescues.

As an indicator of what has occurred, despite our efforts to stop this happening, in the enormous fire grounds In Victoria’s Gippsland, Victorian Government staff, blocking highly qualified vets and animal rescuers, have reported the following in the massive fire grounds in Victoria, in the Bairnsdale rescue centre in the west of this part of Gippsland, 135 Kangaroos were sighted, six were euthanised, that means shot, none were treated. Koalas, the marketing species, 152 were sighted, eight were euthanised and 39 triaged (means some sort of help). In the Orbost centre for wildlife rescue 234 Kangaroos were sighted, none euthanised and none triaged, 13 Koalas were taken to triage in Bairnsdale. Thousands of animals died in these places.

Blue Gum plantations in Western Victoria

“Scores of Koalas have been found dead at a timber plantation in Australia after loggers allegedly bulldozed the area”. Yahoo News, February 2020

Plantation wood-chips at Portland Port

The deaths of 13 Koalas occurred at a blue-gum plantation near Hamilton and their bodies were discovered in June 2022. Media reports suggested that some Koalas had been dead for just two weeks, while others likely died around 12 months ago.

“Victorian authorities have refused to allow the relocation of a family of koalas living in 17 hectares of blue gums set to be logged next Friday. Carers allege the animals have been given a “death sentence” following a decision by the state’s environment department (DELWP) to advise against the action”. Michael Dahlstrom, Yahoo News 29 April 2022.

In the West of Victoria, the stories we are told by rescuers are horrific. A few days ago we visited the site of yet another Koala disaster, a fire reduction burn in the Mount Richmond National Park. Given the relatively small size of the trees in this area of the park it would not have been difficult to check if Koalas were present. 

Mount Richmond National Park reduction burn
Mount Richmond National Park reduction burn

While in Victoria Koalas are seen as a nuisance (PR risk) relating to commercial forestry, land clearing and out of control hot burn offs, in New South Wales, the ACT and Queensland Koalas were moved to the endangered list.

“It was in Queensland that the Koala was the subject of Australia's first concerted environmental campaign after the state Labor Government, in response to pressure from trappers who had denuded Koala populations to the south, proclaimed an open season on the animal in August 1927…. The trappers had their way, slaughtering and skinning no fewer than a million Koalas, but the Labor government paid the price, being swept from power at the next election. Australia's first three fauna parks, set up in the late 1920s, were then dedicated to Koalas”.

Koala skins piled high

Employment prospects and booming populations: Nothing has changed

The mass killing of Koalas in Queensland continued until 1927, by then the Koala was heading for extinction in the state, following a Queensland Government endorsed open season. The later mass killings were notoriously called Black August when Koala ‘hunters’ killed 600,000 Koalas for pelts in just one month. The figure does not include joeys. The ABC reports:

“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”.

Koala in the Otways tourist attraction
Better alive then dead, international tourists love to see Koalas

A new Koala Hospital in a Melbourne Zoo

It looks as if the money donated by the general public to the RSPCA for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation during Victoria’s catastrophic fire storms has (in part at least?) gone into a new Koala Hospital facility at Werribee Open Range Zoo, which according to the ABC reporter on TV (26/8/2022):

“While most of the wards will be kept empty throughout the year ready for an expected surge during the bushfire season”.  

Problems and questions regarding this facility are numerous. For example, Koalas from Western Victoria are already arriving at Werribee in significant numbers, so what is happening to these animals?

Wood-chips, Portland Port, Victoria
Woodchips being prepared for export, Portland Port, Victoria

Many of these injured Koalas are the victims of industrial activity, blue gum plantation clearing and so on in the western part of Victoria. The Victorian Government do not want to see the Koalas going back as they represent a significant and international PR risk. Koalas are also currently being injured in DELWP reduction burns, so what happens to these animals? A very substantive issue here is that particularly since 2018 DELWP have been blocking wildlife rescues from public lands including National and State Parks.

For the 2018/2019 wildfires in Victoria DELWP, who were trying to stop the rescue of young Koalas claiming they were overabundant, directed that Koalas should be sent to the Healesville Sanctuary Wildlife Hospital. Ross, the Director of the sanctuary, told me that they received just two Koalas that fire season, one was rehabilitated. Given what is being done, how is the Werribee Hospital going to receive Koalas from public lands etc, I doubt if DELWP will change their ways?

They blocked Andrea and I from attending the media launch at Werribee, stating it was a private event and was full. They always try to block us from all these things which is interesting. We are not alone, here is an extract from an email I received today from a highly experienced wildlife rescuer:

“My experience working with DELWP and koalas from bushfires is that they tried everything to stop us. Their final barrier was that there was nowhere to release rehabilitated animals. It set off alarm bells to me and how is it that our most experienced and highly regarded koala caring experts aren’t involved. Well, I assume this is the case. I spoke to (name removed) about the blue gum situation in (name removed) and DELWP had not contacted her at all. I think they are just getting smart and have worked out how to exclude everyone with credibility around rescuing and rehabilitating Koalas”. 

I would have thought that the general public who donated the funds for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation to the RSPCA in Victoria, monies now in complete control of the Victorian Government, would have wanted their money spent on wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, and not an underutilised facility (if that is the case as reported by the ABC) that has been created to make it look to the public that something very significant is being done. From a strategic point of view, the Werribee Koala Hospital gives the Victorian Government far greater control over what is done to the state’s Koala populations, including opportunities for greater secrecy.


We all need to ensure the Werribee Hospital is fully utilised, and what goes on is properly reported to the general public, who have paid for this facility. This is particularly important given the grossly inadequate facilities in Victoria, wildlife vets and hospitals, to help any wildlife, let alone Koalas. The next bad fire season, given the current wet weather conditions, could be two or three years away, “while most of the wards will be kept empty throughout the year” is not nearly good enough.