Different portrayals of Koalas on Kangaroo Island: what gets whose attention (and what doesn’t)
Department of Biological Sciences, Macquarie University, Sydney, NSW, 2109 Email:
During this study, the public debate about the most appropriate way to manage an overabundant population of introduced but highly charismatic animals on Kangaroo Island (South Australia) was examined. In the 1920s, 18 koalas were introduced to the island in response to concerns about their survival on the mainland, subsequently increasing greatly in numbers. By the 1990s, large concentrated populations of Koalas had caused extensive tree deaths and resulting environmental damage, with associated economic and animal welfare issues.
This study aimed to discover why and how the management of this population of animals had become problematic. Using an Actor-Network approach, different understandings of the koalas on Kangaroo Island were analysed. Several distinct groups, with different views of the koalas and ideas of how the animals should be managed, were active in the discussion as to how the situation should be managed and why. There were few points of agreement between most of these groups, whose contributions to the discussion were to a large extent reflecting fundamentally different world views. One consequence of these differing world views was that the groups had profoundly different views of the koalas themselves.
Four different ways of viewing koalas were in evidence. Conservation-minded people and groups described the koalas as respected, wild animals with intrinsic value, but recognised that conservation included wider ecological assemblages than the koalas alone. Farmers described the koalas as no different from any other of the animals on their land, whether stock, feral or native; if causing problems then their numbers should be checked and, as in the case of other overabundant species, farmers should be permitted to do this. Activists described a more anthropomorphic koala that was cute, harmless and loveable and which was vulnerable to harm as a result of actions proposed by
other groups and which therefore needed to be protected. Scientists tended to define the koala as introduced, inbred and overabundant, advocating significant reductions in numbers although there were alternative suggestions as to how this would be best achieved.
These accounts of different understandings of the koalas, the environment and of other people’s motivations, demonstrate how a perverse outcome – no effective measures to address the problem – eventuated. The prevailing image of this iconic species as a unique Australian species under threat and deserving of conservation measures has extended its protection to the koalas on Kangaroo Island although the koalas on the island are neither rare nor vulnerable and are of equivocal conservation value.
Despite a great deal of attention from politicians, research and discussion amongst scientists, effort from farmers, and both unfocused activism and the efforts of an activist organisation dedicated solely to serving the interests of all koalas everywhere, the koalas on Kangaroo Island remain overabundant. Thus, besides the damage underway to the environment of the island, the koalas remain vulnerable to adverse welfare consequences not only via the effects of their own overpopulation (starvation etc) but also via possible informal attempts to limit their numbers by the deliberate introduction of disease or by shooting.