from Anne in Adelaide, Australia: Kangaroo Island – a case of too many koalas

sunrise on Island Beach

25 October. I am on the beach a few minutes after dawn. The clouds cover the rising sun, blocking out the orange sunrise of the previous days. They are brilliant, backlit across the horizon against the early-blue sky, each unique shape mottled in shades of grey and white and sunrise yellow. Such a wonder of nature.

I am following the long footprints of a kangaroo: the last one to walk this path. There is no other human as far as I can see. A pair of pied oystercatchers is patrolling the sand ahead of me. I think from their behaviour that they might have youngsters hidden higher up in the marram grass. In the forest to my right a pied currawong is calling, his distinctive ‘clang, clang’. A pair of superb wrens are foraging in low grey bush closer to me. My dog Roy is intently sniffing for evidence of kangaroos: half-blind, Roy is still a hunter. Like me, he is happiest on the beach.

happiest …

We are leaving Kangaroo Island today, and I have been thinking about how Australians need to care for this special island.

In 1802, when Captain Matthew Flinders arrived here in his ship, HMS Investigator, filled with a hungry crew, they were delighted to find so many (almost tame) kangaroos which they promptly slaughtered. In honour of this feast, Flinders so named the island. Flinders was tasked by the British Admiralty to map the coastline of Australia. They could not have found a better navigator or cartographer.

21-22 March, 1802. Diary of Captain Matthew Flinders. ‘Several black lumps, like rocks, were pretended to have been seen in motion by some of the young gentlemen, which caused the force of their imaginations to be much admired; next morning, however, on going toward the shore, a number of dark-brown kangaroos were seen feeding upon a grass-plat by the side of the wood and our landing gave them no disturbance. I had with me a double-barrelled gun, fitted with a bayonet, and the gentlemen my companions had muskets. It would be difficult to guess how many kangaroos were seen; but I killed ten, and the rest of the party made up the number to thirty-one, taken on board in the course of the day; the least of them weighing sixty-nine, and the largest one hundred and twenty-five pounds. These kangaroos had much resemblance to the large species found in the forest lands of New South Wales, except that their colour was darker, and they were not wholly destitute of fat.’

https://sites.google.com/site/kipaview/history/extracts-from-the-diary-of-matthew-flinders

The island remains special for its wildlife. Although the mainland’s original wildlife has suffered from the introduction of all sorts of ferals animals, Kangaroo Island seems to have escaped the invasion by a few of the worst: foxes and rabbits.

Rabbits were released on Kangaroo Island several times but they did not survive, thank goodness. Apparently, they fell prey to the local Rosenberg’s goannas who must have found the rabbit warrens a perfect feeding ground. Kangaroo Island is the last stronghold for these goannas. The absence of aboriginal people is the reason given for the goanna numbers on the island.  Aboriginal people left the island about 2,000 years ago. Kangaroo Island was separated from the mainland over 10,000 years ago by the rising oceans – enough time for species to differentiate.

The lack of some of the worst feral animals that plague the mainland and the paucity of the island’s soils have combined to preserve a lot of the native vegetation and fauna.

Cute – but can be a problem…

However, there is one animal that is a major problem: the koala. Twelve disease-free koalas were moved to the island in the 1920s, in a conservation response to the decimation of the koalas for the fur trade. And the marsupials loved their new home, finding it quite perfect. They took to the manna gums and the blue gum forests with gusto. The numbers have exploded. Rare manna gums are now threatened. So now there is a serious problem in the National Parks and eucalyptus plantations: too many koalas. What to do?

The obvious answer was to cull koalas but there was such an outcry at the idea of shooting or euthanising these iconic marsupials, this option was shelved. Of course, tourists flock to Kangaroo Island to see koalas and to have their photographs taken with them. Instead, at great expense, authorities have sterilised many koalas and moved some off the island. Still too many remain and they breed annually.

During the devastating bushfires of January this year, (almost half of the island’s 4,400 sq kms was burnt) thousands of koalas were wiped out (some say as many as 25,000). The scale of the destruction by the fires is hard to imagine. You can get some idea from the before and after images in this ABC report of February 2020.

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-02-18/kangaroo-island-bushfires-before-and-after-destruction/11970788?nw=0

Many injured ones were rescued and the sight of these pathetic animals resulted in an outpouring of donations for their care. Maybe 25,000 remain. BUT Kangaroo Island would be better off without ANY koalas. Whereas, kangaroos can manage their reproductive rate (embryonic diapause) in reaction to times of scarcity, koalas cannot.

Bushland on Kangaroo Island will recover, so will the koalas and the problem will continue. The larger question of how to preserve the island from inappropriate development (such as golf courses that need copious amounts of water) and lifestyle developments (that carve up precious coastal blocks for fly-in owners) remains.

I could walk the beach on my own this sunrise – a privilege that I did not take for granted. Long may Kangaroo Island remain a island where life is lived at a slower pace: a place where artists gather, boutique wine-makers offer you wine tastings while you observe wild kangaroos and locals care for our native animals.

I am following the long footprints of a kangaroo: the last one to walk this path. There is no other human as far as I can see. A pair of pied oystercatchers is patrolling the sand ahead of me. I think from their behaviour that they might have youngsters hidden higher up in the marram grass.In the forest to my right a pied currawong is calling, his distinctive ‘clang, clang’. A pair of superb wrens are foraging in low grey bush closer to me. My dog Roy is intently sniffing for evidence of kangaroos: half blind Roy is still a hunter. Like me, he is happiest on the beach

From Brenda in Hove, UK: “I must go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky …”

Hove Beach, UK. a sunny day for beach huts

28 May. So far we have been told to take our exercise close to home (really, Dominic) and I have obeyed that instruction. The brakes seem to be coming off somewhat so I ventured down to the Hove seafront today. It is officially half term for the schools and normally we would see thousands of tourists on the beach-front but the town councillors warnings to people to stay away from Brighton and Hove seem to have had effect – even in the glorious weather we are enjoying.

There were quite a few people on the beach and in the sea – but distances more than respected – and the same went for the promenade (and not a mask in sight). It was more than a very relaxed and pleasant experience; it was so normal; it was a joy! .

People had also returned to their beach huts and there was an unusual amount of DIY going on.  Quite a few are scruffy and one wonders why some people don’t sell their huts if they clearly haven’t used them for years. They sell for something between £16,000 and £25,000. High price to pay! Anyway, hot owners out in force, with their deck chairs and picnic tables hauled out and the kettles on – and much sun worshipping in evidence.  

Much to my surprise, Hove lagoon café was open for take-away after being closed since lock-down. Hurry on over! Chips on the beach – new special treat. Another joy! Really. Nothing like a pleasure denied and then allowed.

Table tennis being played but lagoon and children’s playgrounds and paddling pool not in use. I miss the sound of small children playing.

Cyclists much in evidence as usual and it is worth noting that the line-up of bicycles provided by the Council had been added to – and there were lots of newly painted cycle lanes on the way to the beach.

What I had sorely missed was just looking at the sea. We have lived near the sea for more than half our lives and I never tire of contemplating the waves and the sun playing on the water. Such bliss to be able to indulge such a simple pleasure again.