The Koala and Possum Trade in Queensland, 1906-1936
Frances Hrdina1 and Greg Gordon2,3
130/38 Dundee Rd, North Maclean Qld 4280.
2Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. PO Box ISS, Brisbane Albert St Qld 4002.
In this paper we discuss the history of the koala and possum fur trade in Queensland, based mainly on material in Queensland Government archives, and review the development of legislation and wildlife management practices.The koala and possum harvests arose in response to a large increase in the abundance of koalas and possums in mid to late 19th century. A marked increase in skin prices in the early 20th century provided further stimulation to the harvests. Harsh rural conditions and economic downturns further raised interest in harvesting and the government regularly came under pressure to open trapping seasons for economic reasons. Regulated koala harvests operated intermittently from 1906 to 1927, whereas possum harvests were held more frequently and over a longer period, from 1906 to 1936. Fluctuation in demand was a major influence on the industry, leading to the expansion of the industry after 1900, and the eventual demise of the possum industry in the 1930s. Strong demand over about three decades resulted from a range of factors influencing the international fur markets, associated in particular with warfare and economic conditions after World War I. Successive Queensland governments supported the harvest because of its economic value, despite having serious concerns about the viability of the koala harvest. The legislation to control the harvest was aimed at protecting possums and koalas from extinction and establishing a sustainable industry. The principal legislative devices used to manage the harvest were close seasons and establishment of sanctuaries, supported by various other measures. Animals were taken by baiting (cyanide), snaring and shooting. Control measures were ineffective in preventing breaches of the regulations. and widespread take occurred during close seasons. The Department of Agriculture and Stock attempted to manage the trade as a sustainable harvest, with annual assessment of populations, and determination of open seasons in response to population levels and market conditions. The harvest was supported by population conservation measures including the establishment of reserves and attempts to conserve populations with a restocking (translocation) program for both koalas and possums in areas thought to be over harvested. Koalas and possums were translocated to a number of mainland sites and onto islands.
The take of possums ranged from about 400,000 to 3,000,000 per annum and that of koalas from about 4S0,000 to nearly one million. In good season, top quality skins could bring at least 60 shillings per dozen. The poorest quality skins brought as little as 2 1/2 pence each. The industry was of considerable economic value, generating personal incomes substantially greater than the income from wages of many workers, and total returns comparable to those of the annual sales of gold for the State. The total number of trapping permits issued in a season varied from about 8,000 to over 9,000.
Governments had serious reservations about the koala harvest, but supported the possum harvest much more strongly. Possum harvests were more frequently, generated more income, and made an important contribution to the economy. Strung community opposition to koala harvests first arose in 1919, effectively signalling the end of the harvest for that species. By 1936, community opposition to the possum seasons had also become established. There was a market downturn at the same time and the possum harvest came to an end. Significant community opposition to harvests of both species arose in both urban and rural areas, the latter mainly because harvests were seen as interfering with grazier interests, causing death of stock from cyanide bits and disturbance to stock by shots and spotlights.