THOUSANDS of koalas across the south-west risk starving to death in the next few years as the blue gum harvest ramps up, wildlife groups have warned.
They say the program that euthanised 700 koalas at Cape Otway was miniscule compared to what will be required in areas such as Bessiebelle, Crawford River and Simpson if the problem is not addressed.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth has called on the state government to urgently develop a plan to control the explosion in koala numbers.
Spokesman Anthony Amis said the group was witnessing the start of what would become a protracted and controversial problem.
“Ultimately if the problem is not properly addressed, Victoria’s environmental reputation will take a bucketing in the overseas press, with the reputation of the region’s plantation industry also likely to suffer,” Mr Amis said.
“Already we are hearing of large koala numbers being concentrated in smaller and smaller areas. Once plantations are logged, koalas that survive the clear-felling then become refugees, honing in on whatever suitable vegetation is remaining.”
Mr Amis said the population boom was probably due to koalas in the region breeding from animals relocated from French Island stock — meaning they are likely to be free of chlamydia, which naturally controls koala populations.
“Essentially this issue wasn’t anticipated in the rush to get all the blue gums into the ground. You’ve had 100,000 hectares of habitat created in 15 years,” he said.
Environment Minister Lisa Neville said she was seeking advice from biodiversity experts on the best available options to prevent extended suffering within koala populations.
“We will be open and transparent with the community while doing so,” she said.
Koroit-based wildlife carer Tracey Wilson has warned of the consequences of koala over-population for the past three years.
“Forget about Cape Otway. It won’t be just 600 or 700 animals, it will be thousands and thousands of koalas across the south-west,” Mrs Wilson said.
“Bessiebelle is an absolute disaster and the news is that that’s going to happen wherever trees are being harvested. Blue gums are everywhere across the south-west and into South Australia.”
She said the animals were moving on to roadside vegetation and into built-up areas and were being hit by cars and attacked by dogs.
“The increase in injuries is horrible,” she said.
Mrs Wilson said the government needed to expand the fertility control program being implemented at Mount Eccles National Park “on a mammoth scale”. She said an expansion of the park to the south towards Bessiebelle should also be considered in an effort to preserve additional habitat.
Australian Bluegum Plantations managing director Tony Price said his company was doing everything possible to avoid harming koalas during harvesting operations.
“Koalas don’t know the difference between national parks, state forests or privately-controlled land. A lot of the land where we have trees is not owned by us so there’s complexities around that as well,” Mr Price said.
He said the company was working with government authorities and other timber companies to look at solutions and one option could be to adopt a “patchwork” approach to harvesting.