The koala problem in Victoria's Cape Otway made big news this year when conservationists were forced to euthanize hundreds of starving animals. Following a population explosion, the koalas had exhausted food supplies in the area and many were suffering slow, public, and tourist-unfriendly deaths.
This week, a koala contraception program is being rolled out to try and deal with the growing numbers. Vets will catch and sedate 100 koalas before implanting the healthy ones with small contraceptive devices. The program is welcomed by conservationists and animal lovers alike, but it's a slow process and it could take years before we know if it's worked or not.
Dr. Desley Whisson, a lecturer at Deakin's School of Life and Environmental Sciences, told VICE that for any fertility control measure to have an impact, it needs to reach 80 percent of the animals reproducing. But with population density already estimated to be 11 times the sustainable rate, "Anything done at the moment is going to take a long, long time before we see a change in habitat conditions."
However, Whisson does believe contraception is the right decision for the area, adding that without intervention, "Trees will continue to suffer, eventually die, and there will be more starvation." This would hurt not only the koalas, but also other animal and bird populations.
While measures are being taken, the fact numbers were allowed to get out of control is worrying. Conservationists have been pressuring the government to take action against the exploding population for years. But they were put off by the reality that carrying out any kind of euthanasia program brings the possibility of negative attention. This fear was realized earlier this year when a decision to destroy animals that would have died from starvation lead to waves of criticism. It wasn't until locals and tourists began to complain that the "whole cape smelled like dead koalas" that anything was done.
Although koala numbers are healthy around Australia, mass starvation events like this aren't common. Rather this is the result of a very comfortable environment breeding complacent animals.
Whisson explained that the presence of manna gums, a perfect food source, meant most of the koalas reduced their living area to just a few trees. In other Victorian koala populations animals move on and explore an area when food is exhausted. But the Cape Otway koalas choose to sit tight and starve. "It's not like those koalas couldn't have moved," explains Whisson. "A lot of them seem to have no clue they could move a couple of hundred meters and there'd be trees." In other words, living the sweet life for so long lead to changes in behavior, with Whisson concluding, "I expect there is some element of personality in there, in terms of which ones are able to survive."
To combat their apparent apathy towards their own survival, physically moving the animals to an area with more vegetation was also suggested. Although it's being proposed alongside other maintenance solutions, koalas don't traditionally take well to being relocated. And moving would mean needing to adapt to a new diet of tree species. Considering this particular population's track record of innovating to survive, there are concerns the animals wouldn't be able to effectively adapt.
For now the government's conservation plan is being praised by those working to protect the animals. And while it may be slow, it's considered to be the best course of action for a population that needs more than a little assistance.
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